Fighting Words


Will an Iraq war make our al-Qaida problem worse? Not likely.

There is a parody of the old Uncle Sam “I Want YOU” recruiting poster in circulation. It shows Osama Bin Laden in the Uncle Sam finger-pointing pose, proclaiming that he wants us to invade Iraq and thus generate massive infusions of young and eager talent to his ranks. In different verbal and cartoon forms, this thought has become part of the standard repertoire of those who take the regime-preservation or regime-prolongation view of Iraq.

Before examining the argument—if it is an argument—one might observe that these are often the same people who scoff at any connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, and who furthermore are the most critical of the war on al-Qaida and the Taliban. So, it might be noted that for this purpose at least, they take as a given what they otherwise doubt. Perhaps this is progress, even if unacknowledged. (When they say that Iraq is a “distraction,” do please remember to ask them: “Distraction from what?” Then ask how keen they are on the battle against Bin Laden.)

It is certainly curious, also, to notice that whether or not Saddam has given succor to al-Qaida, the Bin Ladenist forces around the world have identified his cause with their own. In Kurdistan they fight, at least “objectively” on Saddam’s side. In their propaganda, they speak absurdly of an intervention against Saddam as “an attack on a Muslim country,” as if regime change could alter the confessional makeup of the country (which incidentally has many non-Muslims and Christians and used to have an immense Jewish population). But why should one suppose that Saddam’s defeat would increase the appeal of al-Qaida and, even if we knew this to be true in advance, why should it make any difference?

Let me cite two of Bin Laden’s recent pronouncements. After the slaughter of Australian holiday-makers in Bali a few months ago, a statement was issued by al-Qaida that justified the mass murder on the grounds that Australian troops had assisted in East Timor’s transition to independence. Bin Laden had many times venomously criticized this Australian involvement before Sept. 11, so whether he is dead or alive the point is made: The Aussies brought this on themselves by helping a mainly Christian minority regain its independence from a mainly Muslim state. No doubt this same thought helped to swell the ranks of al-Qaida in Indonesia itself, where Islam sometimes makes a good fit with local chauvinism. The conclusion would appear to be this: The wise course would have been to leave the East Timorese to the tender mercies of the Indonesian oligarchy, since to involve oneself on their side was to risk Bin Laden’s ire. Is this what the recruiting-poster peddlers really want us to conclude?

In a sermon to his troops before Sept. 11, and on many other occasions that we have on tape, Bin Laden told them that beating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan had been the hard part. The destruction of the other superpower, he asserted, would be easy. America was soft and corrupt and sunk in luxury, controlled by venal Jews. It was so weak and decadent that it had run away from Somalia. It would not risk its own forces and could not face the idea of taking casualties. If you care for the evidence then, you might note that Bin Laden recruits on the basis that the United States will not fight. (Admittedly he contradicts himself on this, sometimes referring to it as an unsleeping aggressor. But then, so do those who claim to interpret his wishes.) Still, if the administration were suddenly to decide that the risk of intervention in Iraq was too great, after all this preparation, then we could be sure that Bin Laden’s recruiting sergeants would make this cowardice and weakness a central point in their propaganda appeal.

In the early stages of the fighting in Afghanistan after Sept. 11, I remember reading many peacenik arguments that the United States was playing into Bin Laden’s hands and doing exactly what he wanted. (Noam Chomsky made a particular point of this; others added that to kill Bin Laden would cause thousands of new Bin Ladens to spring up in his stead.) I have never seen it argued since that al-Qaida got what it wanted out of the Afghan operation. It lost its only host government, it had to abandon its safe houses in Kabul and Kandahar, it took an enormous number of casualties and had to flee ignominiously, it saw hundreds more of its cadres taken to Guantanamo Bay, and it may very well have left its charismatic leader somewhere under a rock. If this was all part of God’s design, then he may well not be on their side. Moreover, it strikes me that Osama Bin Laden himself is a one-of-a-kind sort of guy, unlikely to clone widely.

But what if he was able to reproduce himself in this way? Would this alchemy make him less of an enemy? Would it remove the obligation to defend civil society from theocratic nihilism? The proponents of the “recruitment” hypothesis are unclear on this point but then—they are unclear on the whole point to begin with.

It seems obvious that there are those in the Muslim world who dislike or suspect the United States for what it does or does not do, and those who hate it for its very existence. The task of statecraft is to make this distinction and also to work hard and intelligently to make it wider. But to argue that nothing can be done lest it incur the displeasure of the second group is to surrender without a fight, and then to get a fight anyway. American support for elections and for women’s rights would infuriate the second group just as much as American action against Saddam. There is, to put it very mildly, no pleasing some people. Nor should there be. Self-respect as well as sound strategy demands that we make the enemy worry what we will do, and not waste away worrying what he may think of us.