The Magazine

Are We Safer?

Yes, George W. Bush has made America more secure since 9/11.

Jun 30, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 40 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Yet we can search in vain Obama's writings and speeches for serious commentary on Europe, let alone on Europe's essential role in America's defense against Islamic radicalism. Western Europe is arguably the most important arena for U.S. counterterrorist efforts against operationally active Islamic terrorist groups. (Intelligence sharing during the Cold War was nowhere near this intimate with the continental Europeans.) Obama is not alone in under-appreciating what the Europeans are doing for the United States. Focused on the failure of the continental Europeans to fight well--or often at all--in Afghanistan, the American Right tends to overlook their contribution to the larger battle against Islamic extremism. Given the accomplished Europeanists among Obama's advisers, however, it's hard not to suspect that the senator has assiduously been avoiding talking about the European-American counterterrorist partnership because it does not fit so easily into his Iraq-war-has-ruined-our-national-security, the-world-is-ashamed-of-us, al Qaeda-is-winning theme.

Obama insists that the Iraq war has seriously weakened us strategically. But how exactly is this so? According to the senator, the Iraq war caused us to take our eye off Afghanistan and our real enemy al Qaeda--the one in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not the branch in Iraq, which bin Laden constantly refers to, praises, and describes as fighting in the battle that will determine the fate of Islam. "These are the same guys [the Bush administration] who helped to engineer the distraction of the war in Iraq at a time when we could have pinned down the people who actually committed 9/11."

Yet, the Bush administration's mistakes in Afghanistan were not those of focus, but of battlefield tactics, will, and a longstanding, entirely bipartisan, confusion on how to deal with Pakistan. The same guiding lights who deployed too few troops to Iraq earlier sent too few troops unaggressively into Afghanistan. Who knows whether we could have caught or killed bin Laden and the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, at the beginning of the Afghan war if we'd parachuted troops en masse into the flatlands adjacent to the Taliban's capital of Kandahar, where bin Laden often resided? Who knows whether we could have killed bin Laden at Tora Bora if General Tommy Franks had committed large numbers of Special Forces to the fight and not allowed allied Afghan troops to be the primary ground forces in the area? We certainly should have done these things. We were fighting on bin Laden's terrain.

If Al Gore had been president, would he have overruled General Franks's casualty-averse, Special Forces-on-horseback, airpower heavy approach to the Afghan war? It seems unlikely. Would the more dovish and less experienced Barack Obama have questioned and countermanded a ranking general?

Obama has repeatedly said that he would now deploy two additional brigades (roughly 8,000 men) to Afghanistan--a commendable "surge" of troops that is surely needed in the country, and about double the reinforcements so far sent by the Pentagon. But is this really a big part of answering the senator's constant complaint that the Bush administration took its "eye off" al Qaeda? A few thousand more troops in Afghanistan's southern provinces would diminish al Qaeda in Pakistan how? Does he mean that instead of stacking up a couple of hundred CIA case officers in the Green Zone in Baghdad, we should stack up these same men and women in Afghanistan, inside guarded compounds where their English-only abilities get further honed? (If Obama were to attack the Bush administration for its lack of zeal in the reformation of the CIA, especially the clandestine service, where the number of operatives who have any real knowledge of Afghanistan's languages and culture remains--according to case officers currently serving--scandalously small, he would be on firm ground.)

Increasing troop levels in Afghanistan will do little or nothing against al Qaeda in its primary training ground and headquarters: Pakistan. More troops will certainly help thwart the Taliban's ambitions to destabilize larger parts of Afghanistan. But to beat al Qaeda in Central Asia and the subcontinent, we must beat al Qaeda in Pakistan. And we are unlikely to do this anytime soon by opening up secular schools in the North-West Frontier Province (a commendable if unworkable idea of Obama's) or by launching occasional Special Forces strikes into al Qaeda-infested areas of Pakistan, another estimable if mild recommendation from the senator. Targeted assassinations and repeated military strikes against al Qaeda's camps and the affiliated Pakistani tribes can seriously damage the organization. The Bush administration has proven the possibilities of such tactics in Afghanistan and elsewhere by killing off or capturing probably upwards of 80 percent of al Qaeda's command structure and foot soldiers of 2001.

Which brings me to the question of whether Obama believes that with such losses al Qaeda is undiminished since 9/11, when bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri were living in the open and with ease dispatching emissaries. Many of the killed and captured holy warriors were skilled Westernized, globetrotting Arabs and Pakistanis. Al Qaeda is still recruiting and could do horrendous damage to the United States, but does Obama really think al Qaeda's recruitment efforts are "stronger" now after the world's principal security services have been focusing on the organization for seven years, and when well-known Islamists and the Arab media are seriously debating the ethics that allow young men and women to slaughter civilians in the name of Allah? Just read the increasingly whiny and apologetic speeches of bin Laden and Zawahiri since 2005. Note their current attempt to headline the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has solicited some derisory commentary from well-known fundamentalists. (In 2001 al Qaeda viewed Zionism as a subset of Western evil, generally not worthy of its loftiest polemics.) How in the world does Obama actually know that the incarceration and treatment of the 9/11 terrorists, which "destroyed our credibility when it comes to the rule of law .  .  . has given a huge boost to terrorist recruitment in countries that say, 'Look, this is how the United States treats Muslims' "? Are Muslim militants really turning into jihadists because the premier infidel power didn't give Khalid Sheikh Mohammed habeas corpus rights? Does the senator really think that faithful Muslims would embrace the slaughter of innocents if the United States waterboarded him--an interrogation technique that is quite polite compared to the standard interrogative methods of the Arab, Pakistani, and Central Asian security services? Like much of the American left, the senator is imagining his own disgust in the "hearts and minds" of foreign Muslims. Isn't it a big push to suggest that any of this means that al Qaeda and its allied extremist groups committed to jihad against America are in a stronger position now than in 2001 and 2003?

After launching military strikes against al Qaeda elements in Pakistan, what would the Obama camp do that is so different from what the Bush administration has done or a McCain one would do? Would President Obama really cut off aid to the Pakistani military, a highly imperfect ally in the war on terror? One reason al Qaeda-directed or -inspired suicide bombings skyrocketed in Pakistan in 2007-08 is that the Pakistani government had been challenging the group and its local allies. Another reason is surely that al Qaeda's holy warriors now have great difficulty in attacking the United States and other Western targets, in large part thanks to the Bush administration's counterterrorist efforts and to those of Britain and France.

General Pervez Musharraf may have been fitful and fickle in how he conducted his anti-al Qaeda campaign, but he did earn al Qaeda's wrath. And al Qaeda violence in Pakistan, as in Iraq, appears to be slowly but surely working against the popularity of the organization and its local support, as superbly described in a recent essay, "The Unraveling," by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank in the New Republic.

The increase in violence in Pakistan does not mean we are less safe; it means the Pakistanis are beginning to tackle the excruciatingly difficult problem of extirpating bin Ladenism from regions of the country where it put down deep roots. Jihadist sentiments are now widespread in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the North-West Frontier Province, and even the Punjab, the critical geographic and cultural bridge to India. Reversing this growth will likely be an erratic, ugly process as Pakistan's reborn democracy responds to the widespread anger about the American presence in Afghanistan. To local eyes, America is up to no good, the Pashtun Taliban were better Pakistani allies than the current Afghan government with its many pro-Indian Tajiks. With the Taliban in power, the Americans were getting bombed, and Pakistanis weren't deluged with suicide-bombers.

Democratic Pakistan is working hard to reach a modus vivendi with the Taliban militias. If it does, Afghanistan and the Coalition forces will face renewed attack as Pashtuns increase their support of the multiheaded Taliban movement. But if they don't reach an understanding, which seems more and more likely given the intensifying militancy and ambition among the Pakistani Taliban, then democratic Pakistan and its angry army will likely combat the militants who provide al Qaeda sanctuary. This brutal process may immiserate Pakistan and produce small waves of jihadists trying to gain access to the West and attack Americans and Europeans. But this is progress even if Barack Obama, who rightly supports the strengthening of democracy in Pakistan, doesn't quite understand what's going on.

But back to Iraq, the supposed epicenter of our newly developed national weakness: Does Obama hear our European and Middle Eastern allies calling for the rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq? (The definition of rapid is 16 months, the senator's stated timetable for a "gradual" withdrawal.) If so, he has acute hearing.

Once it became clear to Sunni Arabs that an American withdrawal would lead to the battlefield defeat of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority by Iraq's Shiite Arabs and Kurds, the desire to see the American troops leave Mesopotamia quieted down noticeably. Sunni Arabs are increasingly interested in the clout that might accrue to them through provincial elections in October 2008 and national elections before 2010. (It's amazing how military defeat focuses the mind on more peaceful paths to power.)

Are the emirates of the Persian Gulf or the Saudis asking the Americans to withdraw the Navy from the region? They could do so easily if so inclined. But they know that as long as the U.S. Navy stays, and the American will to use it remains steadfast, the Iranian regime's capacity to intimidate its neighbors remains a dream. Although the surge has so far had little effect on Obama and the Democratic party, its effect on the Middle East--on how Iraqis view us, on how all Arabs view us, and on how Iranians view Iraqis and Americans--has been enormous. We didn't run. We doubled-down. The Sunni Arab press and satellite TV channels are describing Iraq in more normal terms (it's hard for them as the country is full of Shiites, Kurds, and Americans) and is learning to deal, ever more calmly, with the hitherto bizarre situation of having Sunni Arab Iraqis say almost nice things about Americans.

Iraqi Shiites are sending missions to Tehran to complain about Iranian meddling in Iraq's internal affairs. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's military headquarters in Basra, where he personally led the government's operations to secure the city, was shelled with Iranian-supplied weaponry, which, as U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker wryly remarked, no doubt focused the prime minister's attention on the Iranian problem. A tough, independent, sometimes irascible fellow, Maliki didn't look like he was enjoying his recent public audience in Tehran with Ali Khamenei, but he didn't buckle before the Iranian cleric, who wants to scuttle any basing agreement or defense pact between the United States and Iraq. After the meeting, Maliki reaffirmed his desire to see Washington and Baghdad sign a defense agreement. As the Washington Post put it, "This would seem to be an obvious U.S. gain in what, according to Senator Barack Obama .  .  . is the urgent task of countering Iran's attempt to dominate the Middle East." The Bush administration may have a difficult time getting a Status of Forces agreement passed through the Iraqi parliament, given how the issue rubs against Iraqi pride and the maximalist positions the Pentagon always initially takes in such negotiations. This is good. For the first time since the early 1950s, Iraqis are learning--and quickly--how to act as political adults. As Iraqi democracy gains strength, so will Iraqi pride and the ability of Iraqi leaders to make difficult compromises with the United States.

On the ground, the Shiite-led government in Baghdad is, slowly but surely, regaining control of regions of the country once dominated by lawless Shiite militias. The Shiite-led army is, slowly but surely, expanding its operations into Sunni regions of the country and encountering little opposition from armed Sunnis who once allied themselves to al Qaeda. Iraq's oldest Shiite nationalist party, the Dawa, to which the once belittled and now increasingly admired Maliki belongs, may well become the dominant Shiite political party after the national elections in 2009, further intensifying the "Iraqification" of the country's Shiite politics. The Dawa is hardly a bastion of pro-American sentiments, but it is increasingly a redoubt of Iraqi democrats who know that radical, armed Shiite youth are not a reliable political base. On both the Sunni and Shiite sides, older men are regaining the high ground.

The indefatigably anti-American Moktada al-Sadr, who has never shown much fondness for Iranians, is now "studying" in Iran. His political position is in flux and he is persona non grata at the religious schools in Najaf, Iraq's preeminent seat of Shiite education, where his father and his philosophically trailblazing father-in-law both gained their fame. Sadr is now employing the old Shiite belief in concealment or "occultation" as a political tactic. This may not work out as well for him as it did for the twelfth Imam, who is more revered today than when he vanished in the ninth century, or Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who became much more powerful exiled in Iraq and France than he had been preaching in Iran in the 1960s. The Iraqi provincial elections will let us know whether the Sadrists can hold their own, or whether the Dawa eats into Sadr's base of support. His personal charisma has certainly taken a hit as the surge has brought greater security to Baghdad's Shia community and eliminated the thuggery that came with Sadrist protection.

To the east in Iran, Mohammad Khatami, the former president, has publicly attacked his own government for "arming and training groups" for missions "in other countries where they wreak destruction and havoc." Hardcore members of the Iranian parliament have demanded that the intelligence ministry investigate Khatami for treason. Khatami, true to form, has quieted down, reaffirming this loyalty to the regime. But if he dared to voice this criticism publicly, we can be sure the senior mullahs of Qom are still saying it privately. (Qom is Iran's center of religious jurisprudence; its leaders have close ties to the divines in Najaf and often cool relations with the politicized clergy in Tehran.) In Sadr City and Basra, the Iranian regime has backed off its support of militant Shiite groups. It's a very good guess that Abd al Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (which was founded in Tehran in 1982), is livid about the cash, weaponry, and training Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps has given to Sadr's followers. Sadr and Hakim loathe each other. The Iranians surely know now they went too far in their attempt to radicalize the Iraqi Shia by encouraging internecine strife.

Obama would be correct in saying that the Iraq war offered clerical Iran an enormous opportunity to get itself into trouble, to unlearn a big lesson of the Iran-Iraq War: Arabism among the Iraqi Shia is real. The age-old Arab-Persian split in Mesopotamia can flair up suddenly, even among Iraqi Shia who have Iranian family members. In its history, the Iranian clerical regime has never had to deal with such a situation, where some of the most respected Shiite jurisprudents are in opposition and the Iranian ruling elite can neither shut these opponents down nor even criticize them too severely. Iraq's religious schools are recovering from the Hussein years and are again receiving students from Iran's most prestigious schools. Najaf will inevitably regain some of the centripetal eminence it had in the past. Najaf clerics were instrumental in both of Iran's 20th-century revolutions, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Najaf's disputatious clerics, both Iraqi and Iranian, rock the boat again in Iran (and in Lebanon).

The Iraq war, with the gruesome al Qaeda campaign against both Shiites and Sunnis, has been the backdrop to a complex argument among devout Muslims about divinely sanctioned violence. The Iraqi Shiite religious establishment is not just waging an intellectual battle against the pretensions of Iran's theocracy, but also working with the elected Iraqi parliament and Sunni tribal leaders and anti-al Qaeda Sunni clerics to integrate religious ethics into law. Although most American liberals and conservatives now scoff at the idea, a religious, democratic Iraq could well be transformational for a region where virtually every government lacks legitimacy. In a Middle East that is always rough, corrupt, and illiberal, Iraq is potentially as revolutionary as American-liberated post-fascist Europe. Only now is the country really getting interesting. If democratic Iraq grows stronger--and we will have a pretty good idea of its strength with the coming provincial and national elections--and becomes a philosophical generator of anti-jihadist mores, the Iraqi people will have succeeded rather astonishingly.

When do we get to start asking whether the Iraq war, with its hard-won-however-imperfect democracy, might actually be a good thing, worth the American blood and treasure? If 85 percent of the Iraqis say it was worth the hellacious voyage, and the unelected Sunni Arab rulers of the region say it was not, might we not think with the former? If millions of Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish Iraqis vote in the provincial elections, will Obama really want to say, one month before the U.S. presidential elections, that America's sojourn in Iraq has failed? If Iraq contributes to the current intellectual debates in the Muslim Middle East that seem to be diminishing the ideological appeal of bin Ladenism in Arab lands, might that mean that the bloodshed in Mesopotamia hasn't been a waste?

And speaking of Iran, Obama constantly asserts that the Islamic Republic has been the great beneficiary of America's invasion of Iraq, that things in the region would be so much better if Saddam Hussein were still in power. Leaving aside the issues of intra-Shiite friction and competition and the Muslim soul-searching partly provoked by the Iraq war, is Obama suggesting that the Middle East would be a safer place if Saddam were still with us and he, too, were again developing nuclear and biochemical weapons and could thereby "check" Iranian adventurism?

Clerical Iran's relationship with Syria was ironclad when Saddam was in power--it would not at all be surprising to discover that Syria's North Korean-designed breeder reactor under construction at Dayr az-Zawr was critically aided and approved by the Iranians before Saddam's fall. Saddam's savage aggressiveness--remember it?--was certainly one reason the mullahs became serious about developing nuclear weapons (the regime's conception of the Iranian nation as the cutting edge of anti-American, militant Islamic power was another). Damascus was taking a page from Saddam's and the mullahs' playbook: Nuclear weapons are an excellent investment for regimes who see their legitimacy tied directly to their ability to project intimidating force. A nuclear-armed Syrian-Iranian axis could unleash an enormous amount of trouble without fearing military or even economic retaliation from Western or other Middle Eastern states.

Does Obama approve or disapprove of Israel's preemptive strike on Dayr az-Zawr? Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein, a thoughtful dove, reluctantly praised the Israeli attack, which may well have retired Syria's nuclear-weapons program. Is this airstrike within the ballpark of the Illinois senator's idea of "tough diplomacy"? If so, would he then approve of an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities? His speeches and interviews certainly suggest that he views clerical Iran as a much more dangerous threat to America and Israel than Baathist Syria, whose nuclear facility may well have been developed with Iranian aid as part of a covert effort to develop an anti-American, nuclear-armed front in the Middle East. Are preemptive bombing raids okay if done by threatened foreigners? Would Obama have approved of a U.S.-led raid on Dayr az-Zawr? Or would he have described such an attack as unwarranted bellicosity that endangers the United States and the "peace process"? On September 25, 2004, Obama told the Chicago Tribune that "Launching some missile strikes into Iran is not the optimal position for us to be in" given the ongoing war in Iraq. "On the other hand, having a radical Muslim theocracy in possession of nuclear weapons is worse." Now that sounds a lot like John McCain's position on Iran, which Obama has described as counterproductive "saber-rattling."

It was the American invasion of Iraq that provoked the Europeans to get serious about their nuclear diplomacy with the mullahs in 2003. Has Obama noticed that as the threat of an American military strike against Tehran's bombmaking plants has faded so has the European resolve to punish the clerics with economy-crushing sanctions?

It just beggars the imagination to believe that Obama actually thinks that Ali Khamenei, Iran's prideful, virulently anti-American clerical overlord, would countenance a personal meeting with an American head of state. Obama has many advisers who served in the Clinton administration, and they have surely told him how unresponsive the clerical regime can be to earnest, friendly entreaties laced with the promise of big carrots. And the Clinton administration tried its hand at engagement when Mohammad Khatami was president, a cleric who will, at least furtively, shake a woman's hand. Over the last three years, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, who was until his recent retirement the State Department's majordomo on Iran, was tireless in his efforts to build a united front against Tehran. If Obama really believes his team could do better, be "tougher" than Nick Burns, then he might perhaps explain how.

Whatever new strength Iran has in the region comes not from the American invasion of Iraq--or from Iran's relationship with its always troublesome 25-year-old Lebanese stepchild, Hezbollah--but from its nuclear-weapons program and the nefarious potential it bestows on a government that is willing, as Mohammad Khatami remarked, "to wreak destruction" beyond its borders. The Bush administration has failed to stop this program precisely because the vigorous diplomacy that Barack Obama advocates has not worked. Obama calls for "tough diplomacy," but most Europeans don't want biting sanctions. More eloquently than George Bush, Obama can ask the Europeans for cooperation, but does he really think he could rally the German industrial giant Siemens or the French oil company Total to abandon their Iranian projects because of his personal magnetism? How will he pressure Paris and Berlin to kill these investments? After his public statements, could he plausibly saber-rattle like President Bush, who before the recent National Intelligence Estimate cut his legs off had spooked certain quarters in Tehran with the possibility that he would do to the Iranians what the Israelis did to Saddam Hussein at Osirak and to the Syrians at Dayr az-Zawr? If Obama plans bigger carrots than the Bush administration and the European Union offered the Iranians to stop uranium enrichment, he might consider describing those carrots and to whom in Tehran they will be offered.

Perhaps Obama will just say that diplomacy isn't going to stop the clerical quest for a nuke, and he is unwilling to bomb the Iranian nuclear-weapons facilities because he really doesn't think a nuclear-armed clerical regime is that grave of a menace. It's an excellent bet this is what the senator really believes, although he appears determined not to say so. If he made such a statement now--or even just defined "tough diplomacy"--we could see a meaningful debate between the presidential nominees, assuming the Arizonan really thinks that the only thing worse than preemptive military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities is a clerical regime with a bomb. Perhaps we would have unexpected harmony between the two men, in favor of either preemption or containment. In any case, such a discussion would certainly be more profound than what the Democratic party's choice to be president of the United States has given us so far in his quest to become commander in chief.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.