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Running from Iraq

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Don't imagine it will reduce the jihadist threat.

Oct 23, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 06 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Is jihadism growing exponentially because of Iraq? The liberal parts of the press, Democratic politicians, and numerous counterterrorist experts say as much. They cite the classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) "Trends in Global Terrorism," completed in April 2006 but recently leaked in snippets, which they claim concluded that we are losing the fight against Islamic extremism because the war in Iraq is producing ever-expanding waves of holy warriors.

While it is surely true that jihadism is alive and well, and that the Iraq war has a role in its continued vibrancy, the insistence on a causal connection obscures a host of lasting factors that would powerfully fuel America-hatred whether or not the United States had gone back to Iraq. It also invites the fantasy that our exiting Iraq would leave us better off, when in all likelihood it would fan the flames of jihadism.

Nevertheless, a consensus is growing in Washington. There isn't really much difference between left and right: While Democrats Howard Dean, John Kerry, and John Murtha all wish for a rapid departure, former Republican Secretary of State James Baker will soon release his centrist "alternative," reportedly announcing that victory is impossible and our best bet amounts to "cut, pause, talk to the neighbors, and run." Conservative writers like George Will and William F. Buckley long ago gave up on the idea that the United States could help build a democratic government in Iraq. Fewer and fewer among the nation's political and intellectual elites believe that "staying the course" in Iraq advances the war against terrorism and our national interests in the Middle East.

The NIE, or at least the "Key Judgments" summary that the president declassified and released, didn't in fact say that the war in Iraq had made us less safe, or that Iraq was necessarily the primary ingredient fueling the "global jihadist movement." But the summary certainly implied that things aren't good and that Iraq has become a rallying cry among Sunni holy warriors. It raises legitimate questions. If abandoning Iraq would reduce the terrorist threat to the United States and leave the Middle East in better shape, then that course would be compelling.

Before March 2003, much of the counterterrorist community had already decided that an American-led war in Iraq would harm the West's counterterrorist efforts. Were they right? Is Iraq jet fuel for the anti-American hatred of jihadists? And if so, does that mean the United States should refrain from pushing policies that infuriate extremists across the Islamic world? What would be the likely strategic ramifications in the Middle East of a "redeployment" of U.S. forces out of Iraq?

Let us be absolutely clear: The war and its most tangible result--the empowerment of the Iraqi Shia and Kurds--have galvanized a Sunni jihadist cause in Mesopotamia. The Sunni will to power is a ferocious thing. Neither this magazine nor CIA and State Department analysts foresaw either the amplitude of this sentiment or the spread of fundamentalism among the Sunni community, widely deemed the bedrock of secularism inside Iraq. And the war has certainly provided riveting imagery and stories for Sunni holy warriors globally. It's reasonable to assume that the conflict has helped anti-American Sunni jihadists multiply their numbers.

Iraq, moreover, like Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War, has provided a place where jihadists from different lands can meet, become blood brothers, and acquire deadly skills. Holy warriors in Iraq might learn something from Baathists turned Sunni supremacists. Saddam Hussein's Iraq trained many men to kill efficiently and savagely. When Saddam's Baathist totalitarianism spiritually ceased to exist, in its place, religious identities gained ground. Foreign holy warriors who hook up with ex-Baathists in Iraq will probably go home more dangerous than when they arrived--especially, as the NIE warned, if they go home victorious.

Al Qaeda spokesmen regularly declare that Iraq is at the center of their global effort to humble the United States, the great violator of Islamic lands and virtue. We should believe them--although their preferred battleground would still be America if they could figure out a way to put jihadist cells onto our soil. The Bush administration and Muslim Americans, who have shown themselves highly resistant to the holy-warrior call, have so far kept al Qaeda from again fulfilling its dearest dream.

That's about all one can say for sure about the effects of Iraq on the global jihadist movement. Yet that's not where the administration's critics like to stop. In their eyes, the Iraq war has somehow ruptured the radical Muslim psyche in ways that earlier events and preexisting factors did not.