Yet should we back down from advocating equality between men and women in Islamic countries because such advocacy makes some Muslims more inclined to convert civilian jetliners into fuel bombs? Was Madeleine Albright wrong to talk about such things incessantly? How about Karen Hughes today? Should we chastise our artists and writers--and Muslim artists and writers who've come to the West for its freedom--if they transgress the proprieties of faithful Muslims, especially radical Muslims who require only a little more psychological TNT to send them over the edge into anti-American holy war?
Bill Clinton came very close to embracing artistic self-censorship, as did Jacques Chirac, over the Danish cartoon incident. Many jihad-rising critics and former counterterrorist officials in the Clinton administration argue that we need to avoid behavior that inflames anti-American Muslim passions. By this reasoning, we will always be playing defense to their offense and possibly violent umbrage.
Do the jihad-rising critics want to rewrite history, and stop President Clinton's WMD bombings and sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime, knowing now how bin Laden exploited Muslim solidarity by underscoring this Western aggression? Should we just have let Saddam go free (he was almost there in 2000)? The vast majority of Muslims in the Middle East certainly would have applauded. By this reasoning, who knows how many Muslim militants would have refrained from the leap into the all-consuming hatred of jihad? Maybe one of the 9/11 bombers wouldn't have flipped if we'd stopped bombing and sanctioning Iraq, and the Twin Towers would still be standing. Then again, perhaps such a cessation would have whetted the appetite of the same militants. To bin Laden and those who've embraced his cause, American defeats have been much more inspiring than American victories.
The truth is that much of what the United States needs to do to win the war on Islamic extremism will naturally infuriate those who view the United States and American culture as threatening to Islam, all the more because they also find it appealing. Your average Muslim fundamentalist, who has no intention of becoming a holy warrior, fears and hates, and admires and envies, America. Such men and women are probably near a majority of all Muslims in every Arab land. Almost everything the United States does in this world ought to annoy these people. Much of what the United States needs to do will outrage them.
For example, the United Sates will continue to work with the security and intelligence services of many Middle Eastern autocracies. Unfortunately, the CIA is incapable of truly judging the value of such dealings since its bureaucratic interests are best served by inflating these "secret" relationships. But even if Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Pakistan contribute little to our well-being, in an age of mass-casualty terrorism, a bit of information at the right moment could matter enormously. We will deal with these distasteful regimes, and their subjects will understandably despise us for it.
Even if we ramp up our criticism of these regimes--and we should--and start to distance ourselves from them and condition our aid, we will still be condemned by many in the region for advocating democracy but supporting dictatorship. Nor are we going to stop supporting Israel or opposing terrorist organizations that are also popular social movements (Hamas and Hezbollah), or speaking in favor of women's equality and artistic freedom, or supporting our European allies who may (unwisely) decide to ban headscarves and other traditional Muslim practices within their countries. For these reasons and more, anti-Americanism is going to remain high.
What's more, if the Middle East evolves democratically--and the democratic conversation, amplified by the deposing of Saddam Hussein, remains vibrant--anti-Americanism will shoot through the roof. Fundamentalists will enter the public conversation even more loudly than they have already. Unless one believes that the regimes in place can kill off Islamic militancy and squash Islamic organizations that have terrorist movements within them, then the only solution to bin Ladenism is for Sunni fundamentalism itself to kill it off. Throughout much of the Islamic world, fundamentalism is now mainstream thought. But holding power will deprive militants of the luxury of mere opposition. In power and out, fundamentalists and more moderate Muslims will focus more seriously on Islamic political thought and practice. Under representative government, Muslims will have a harder time avoiding the rot--the ethics that allow young men to kill so easily.
Muslims' questioning of their own world has gained steam since 9/11. Perverse as it is, the carnage in Mesopotamia, like the slaughter in Algeria and Egypt in the 1990s, has forced some reflection among Muslims about their faith and the hideous abuse it has suffered at the hands of some believers. It would be wrong to call this widespread, but it is a start. If the United States gets driven from Iraq, the soul-searching necessary to combat Islamic extremism will also suffer a rout. When Hezbollah appeared victorious over the Israelis this summer, even moderate and liberal Arab Muslims began to rethink their accommodationist stance toward the Jewish state. The very liberal Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the University of Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies, who has welcomed Israelis to Amman, jumped for joy when the Israelis bogged down in Lebanon. He referred to the Israelis as Nazis. Can one ever compromise with Nazis? Intellectually honest, and unquestionably voicing publicly what many moderates were thinking privately, Hamarneh wondered why Arabs should seek peace with Israel if in fact the Zionists were beatable on the battlefield. If we withdraw from Iraq, expect Muslim liberals and moderates to once again nose-dive throughout the Middle East.
When Islamic activists become more responsible for governance, the fundamentalist civil wars will begin. (This process is starting in the Palestinian lands.) The introspection, debates, and fall from grace will be painful and quite possibly violent, as devout Muslims who incorporate the community's popular will into God's law fight it out with fundamentalists who view man-made legislation as an insult to Allah.
This contest is not what the Bush administration foresaw when it espoused democracy in the Middle East as part of the solution to the evil that struck us on 9/11. But the president's democratic reflex was correct. And as faithful Muslims decide how much of Western political thought to incorporate into their own, anti-Americanism will skyrocket. Indeed, rising anti-Americanism will be a pretty good barometer of how serious the democratic-religious debates are in the Muslim Middle East. The more serious the debates, the more furious the flailing out against America by the hard-core militant Muslims will be.
The complexity of this picture suggests, among other things, how shallow the discussion has been among those who see our mistakes in Iraq as the epicenter of our terrorist problem. Discussion of what will happen if the United States pulls out of Iraq has been similarly thin.
Osama bin Laden has always claimed that he and his followers are the "strong horse" and that the United States is a "weak horse," unable to sustain a long war against the faithful. A major American humiliation in Iraq would probably produce what the jihad-rising crowd think Iraq is already: an extraordinary stimulus to holy-warrior passion--Beirut, Mogadishu, the embassy bombings, the Cole, and 9/11 all rolled into one. The critics should at least try to make the argument that the hell we have now is worse than the whirlwind we will reap after we run.
Of course, we might be lucky. The Iraqi Shiites could conceivably save us from seeing the jihadists triumph in Iraq. The Iraqi Sunnis won't. Their traditional social structure was mortally wounded by Saddam. The Sunni elite of Samarra, for example--probably the most bourgeois town in Sunni Iraq--tried but failed to hold out against the radical Sunni supremacists, fundamentalists, and jihadists. The Sunni elders of Samarra actually cherished the Shiite Golden Shrine. They were its historic custodians, and often met within its confines, to talk politics and drink tea, before the men of violence blew it up. The odds are very poor that traditional Sunni hierarchies and the nonradicalized tribes outside of the major urban areas can withstand the Sunni radicals.
The Iraqi Sunni community has no grand ayatollahs and clerical structure of the Shiite kind to moderate and block its violent young men. Assuming the Shiites don't conquer the Sunni triangle, the Sunni community by itself will not spare us the sight of triumphant jihadists taking over American bases and planting their flags for all to see, courtesy of Al Jazeera's satellite coverage. Try to recall an image of the mujahedeen winning in Afghanistan in 1989. You can't--there were few photographs of that distant war. But every man, woman, and child in the Muslim world will be flooded with vivid, lasting images of America's flight from Iraq.
Yet if the Shiites save us from the last-GI-out-of-Baghdad jihad recruitment videos by subduing the Sunni insurgency while we're still in Iraq, it will doubtless be by slaughtering all the bomb-happy Sunnis they can get their hands on. And that Shiite-Sunni collision could powerfully stoke the anti-American flames. The Salafis and Wahhabi fundamentalists loathe the Shiites, whom they view as mushrikun, those who ascribe partners to God. The Shiite charismatic view of history, where the Caliph Ali and his descendants, the imams, are indispensable intermediaries between God and man, is anathema to most Sunnis. In the eyes of many Sunnis in Iraq and elsewhere, the Iraqi Shia already carry the burden of being liberated by the Americans. If the Shiites are forced to conquer the Sunni tri angle, which they probably will be, Sunni Arabs will blame the United States, perhaps with a new level of ferocity.
And neighbors will not stand idly by. The Saudi fundamentalists, apparently the largest contingent of foreign holy warriors in Iraq, would add one more item to their list of satanic things the United States has done. An overt and proud Shiite conquest of Iraq--which is probably inevitable if the Americans leave--would spook the Saudis, who would probably aggressively back their Wahhabi establishment's holy war against the Shia, supplying money and weapons to Iraq's Sunni Arabs.
The Jordanian and Egyptian Sunni establishments might do this, too, given their fear of a "pro-Iranian" Shiite bloc developing. In addition, the Jordanians would fear a tsunami of Sunni refugees from Iraq, threatening to change the politics and culture of Hashemite Jordan (think radicalization beyond the wildest hopes of Yasser Arafat). Foreign aid would prolong the conflagration in Iraq. It is worth recalling the explosion of Islamic radicalism that followed the Iranian revolution in 1979: The Saudis and Iranians went head to head in supporting their preferred Muslim radicals, a competition the Saudis decisively won, with Osama bin Laden a major beneficiary. A new battle between Sunnis and Shiites would spur missionary activity, perhaps on a scale not seen since the 1980s.
On the other hand, some helpful countervailing forces to the Sunni-Shiite explosion might come into play after an American retreat. What is striking about the conflict in Iraq is actually how few foreign fundamentalists have joined the fight. Iraq ought to be flooded with tens of thousands of die-hard militants, wreaking vastly greater havoc over much larger regions. Yet Arab and Pentagon reports from Iraq suggest that only a few thousand foreign jihadists have entered. Islamic fundamentalism is much stronger today than when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Yet the jihadist commitment to Afghanistan was greater than that seen today in Mesopotamia, the second most sacred land for historically sensitive Muslims.
Figures for the Soviet-Afghan war are unreliable--they all come from Pakistani military intelligence. But the rough estimates were that 25,000 to 75,000 holy warriors came to Pakistan from 1980 to 1989. As crude as these numbers are, they still tell us something about the magnetism of Iraq and today's fundamentalist commitment to holy war. Also, we do not find the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, progenitor of modern Sunni fundamentalism, and its offshoots throwing their weight into this war. Why?
As the Israeli scholar Reuven Paz has noted, Egypt's dictator, Hosni Mubarak, may not want militants going to Iraq, as he once allowed them to go to Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya. And Egypt's Islamic activists themselves perhaps have looked into the moral abyss of holy war more acutely than most others because they witnessed the barbarism of some of their own militants in the past. They know Ayman al-Zawahiri firsthand. Egypt's Brotherhood, like its offshoots, has been a bit reluctant to embrace the global jihad of the truly hard-core. More deeply embedded nationalist sentiments may be the cause. In any case, something is going on here, something perhaps about the Sunni-versus-Shiite and Sunni-versus-Sunni strife, that makes one suspect al Qaeda's hopes for a triumphant Iraq campaign may not be requited--not if holy war brings as much discomfort as it brings glory. This could change if the Americans left and a vicious Shiite conquest of Iraq began.
And a side note: Once a radicalized Shiite community conquered central and western Iraq, it very well might turn on the Kurds. The nationalist aspirations of the Shiite Iraqis are real and raw (and a war with the Sunnis would make them worse). If the Kurds decided that the Arabs had again run amok, they might risk declaring independence. Who knows what that would do to Iraq's neighbors. But it could well make the Shia, no longer restrained by the moderate clerics of Najaf, go on the warpath. It doesn't help that the Kurdish Sunnis have oppressed the small Kurdish Shiite community. Will Washington defend the Kurds again? Will we do so forever?
One thing is highly probable: If the Americans flee, and the Shiites begin a vengeful conquest of the country, Tehran, which is already making a play to lead the radical Muslim world, will reach out globally to Sunni holy warriors to divert attention from the Iraqi Shiite counterattack against Iraqi Sunnis. The Iranian appeal will be to target America. All the expert discussion about Islamic terrorism now being the domain of "nonstate" actors will die a quick death at our expense. And the heretical Shiite Alawite regime in Damascus would likely echo this call, especially since the Syrian Sunni majority is becoming more devout. This would be an unintended, unpleasant consequence of the war in Iraq--of our mishandled counterinsurgency against the Sunnis and inadequate defense of the vanishing moderate Shiite center against ever-more powerful Shiite radicals. Neither the authors of the NIE on jihad nor the Democratic critics of the war apparently foresee this menace.
The president's Republican base is cracking on Iraq. Virginia's Republican senator John Warner, a faithful "stay-the-course" kind of guy, is showing signs of battle fatigue. It's a good guess that a majority of Republicans in Congress would dearly love to escape from Iraq if they could figure out how to do so without sounding like "cut-and-run" Democrats.
In Vietnam, the South Vietnamese government deployed a tolerably competent military force that held for a "decent interval" after our departure. This is unlikely in Iraq. When we start withdrawing, the entire Iraqi governing structure, along with the Iraqi army, will probably fracture along ethnic and religious lines. Stay or go, America's fate, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his General John Abizaid have arranged it, depends on the integrity of the Iraqi military. That's not a good bet, especially if we start pulling out.
Once upon a time, the Iraqi army had a strong identity, which it often forced upon the rest of the nation, but that identity was inextricably connected to the Sunni governing class. Although there are many Sunnis serving in the new Iraqi army, their service to the country probably won't withstand the tough counterinsurgency that will be required to calm the Sunni triangle. Sunni participation in the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite, also will probably end with a serious counterinsurgency effort. Just remember how the Sunni elite acted when American forces reduced Falluja: Many went into open rebellion. Imagine how they would act if somebody tried to take down the city of Ramadi, the heart of Sunni rejectionism and power.
And it is equally unlikely that a Shiite-dominated army will be able to restrain its own kith and kin in the Shiite militias, at least while the Sunni insurgency thrives. They certainly won't be able to do so if they know the Americans are leaving. An American departure, be it rapid or gradual, anytime in the next few years would further stampede Iraqis to retreat to the security of their ethnic and religious communities. And U.S. threats to withdraw unless the Iraqis do a better job of forming a national-unity government and constraining their violent passions solicits from the Iraqis just the opposite of what is intended.
There are other reasons the American plans for a "political solution" to the insurgency and sectarian strife have been unsuccessful, but the Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish divisions alone are sufficient to render null the "Iraqification" dreams of Republicans, Democrats, and General Abizaid. A forceful U.S. presence in Iraq was always the key to ensuring that Iraq's national identity had a chance to congeal peacefully--that the Sunni will to power was contained, that Shiite fear and loathing of the Baathists and Sunni fundamentalists didn't ignite into all-consuming revenge, destroying the Shiite center led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and that Kurdish separatism didn't flare. We're beyond that now. But we're not beyond checking the worst tendencies within Iraqi society.
We are certainly not beyond the chance that the Iraqis can govern themselves more humanely than they were governed under Saddam Hussein. Whoever thinks Iraq is hell on earth now is suffering from a failure of imagination. If we leave, it will, in all probability, get vastly worse.
And for those who are concerned about the geostrategic stability of the Middle East or the growth of Sunni jihadism and terrorism against the United States, staying in Iraq ought to be a compelling choice. We don't need to "stay the course" that Rumsfeld and Abizaid have designed. Instead, we should follow the road map offered in these pages by the military historian Frederick W. Kagan. It's the best plan out there for winning. We--not the Iraqis--need to lead a major effort to break the Sunni insurgency. We--not the Iraqis--must police the Shiite-dominated security services to ensure they don't slaughter the Sunnis, especially as we and a Shiite-dominated army with an important Kurdish contingent make a more serious effort to control Baghdad, Ramadi, and the centers of Sunni resistance. We need to keep building up a Shiite-dominated Iraqi army and slowly deploying it in ways that it can handle--with integral American involvement, as at Tal Afar. We should expect a few Iraqi governments to collapse before we start seeing real progress. Yet our presence in Iraq is the key to ensuring that Shiite-led governments don't collapse into a radical hard core.
This may be too much for the United States now. It certainly appears to be too much for the Democrats. We would have all been better off if President Bush and his team had done what Senator John McCain advised back in 2004, when the insurgency started to rip: Tell everyone that the war would be long and hard, and pour in more troops. If we no longer have the stomach for this fight--and it's going to be ugly, with few sterling VIP Iraqis who will make us proud--then we should at least be honest with ourselves. Leaving Iraq will not make our world better. We will be a defeated nation. Our holy-warrior and our more mundane enemies will know it. And we can rest assured that they will make us pay. Over and over and over again.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.