“Far more victories than setbacks since 9/11″

There’s not much sobriety to be found, these days, in debates surrounding the war on terror and the war in Iraq. But the Wall Street Journal offers this exceptionally sober assessment, from which the meaty excerpt below is a good example:

So it’s worth taking stock of what has–and hasn’t–been achieved in five years. We presume that bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, are alive, probably in the Pakistani hinterland. But we know that Mohammed Atef, the mastermind of the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in East Africa, was killed in Afghanistan in an American air strike. We know that Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, one of the masterminds of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, is in U.S. custody, as is Abu Zubaydah, who allegedly planned the failed millennium attacks. We know the U.S. captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the al Qaeda operations chief and mastermind of September 11, as well as his successor, Abu Farraj al-Libbi. We know the U.S. killed al-Libbi’s senior deputies, Haithem al Yemeni and Abu Hamza Rabia. We know that Midhat Mursi, author of al Qaeda’s explosives manual, is dead.

This is not an exhaustive list. And while we do not know what proportion of al Qaeda’s senior ranks are dead or in jail, Zawahiri must write letters to associates to find out whether his messages have aired on al-Jazeera. Al Qaeda has spawned imitators and affiliates, which trade on its radical infamy. But the ability of bin Laden and Zawahiri to plan and execute terrorism seems to have been massively degraded, and it shows in the fact that five years later there has been no major terrorist attack in the U.S., nor any, anywhere, comparable in scale to the attacks of that day.

Nobody likes to tempt fate, so it’s only natural that our political leaders would not advertise this fact too loudly. But at least it should temper the criticism of those who claim that the U.S. policy of aggressively interrogating suspects has yielded no credible information, a point President Bush finally got round to making this week. And it is a strong rebuttal to the argument that, by invading Iraq, the Administration lost focus on the terrorist threat and made America less safe.

The war in Iraq is alternately criticized as a major strategic blunder, something the U.S. should never have done in the first place; or as a tactical fiasco, a worthy enterprise incompetently executed. We would have more sympathy with the second argument if the history of all warfare were not a (retrospective) study in far greater “incompetence,” from Grant’s Wilderness campaign to the needless slaughter of Marines at Peleliu. We’ve cited many of the Administration’s mistakes over the last four years, going back even before the war to its (largely the CIA’s) reluctance to trust and work with all but its own favored Iraqi exiles. But these columns aren’t about to support a war only to back away when things get rough. The mistakes in Iraq at least have some hope of being corrected.

The deeper Iraq argument is that the U.S. should never have gone to war against a country that “posed no threat,” a point supposedly proved by the failure to discover weapons of mass destruction. In fact, Charles Duelfer’s definitive post-mortem report on Iraq’s WMD painted a different picture: Saddam maintained weapons programs that were in “material breach” of U.N. resolutions. And he intended to reconstitute his former programs as soon as the sanctions regime was lifted, something he was well on his way to accomplishing thanks to the global bribery scheme that was the U.N.’s Oil for Food program.

But the notion that Saddam posed no threat beyond WMD capabilities is wrong, and in hindsight the Administration miscalculated politically by emphasizing WMD as it did. That error owed largely to the pressure it was under to take the case for war to the U.N., where Saddam’s violations of his disarmament obligations served as an actionable cause of war. But the real WMD in Iraq’s arsenal was Saddam himself, the threat he posed to his people and his neighbors, and the misbegotten conceits he inspired in a region hungry for a new Saladin or Nasser, someone to redeem Arab honor by standing up to the West.

This was the boil that most needed to be lanced if there was to be any hope that the societies from which the September 11 hijackers hailed could be meaningfully reformed. Saddam in power meant U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, a chief grievance in bin Laden’s fatwa against America. It also meant $25,000 checks for the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, and the costly maintenance of the no-fly zones and the preservation of U.N. sanctions, which the war’s current critics once told us were the cause of thousands of Iraqi deaths from malnutrition and the dearth of medical supplies.

Saddam in power meant that virtually no other Arab problem, such as Syria’s occupation of Lebanon, could be addressed, let alone resolved. In short, Saddam in power locked the Arab world–and America’s involvement in it–into shapes and patterns that were the source of so many of its political and social ills, and that could only be broken by his removal. And, to a remarkable extent, that is just what happened in the two years after the war.

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