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Iraq policy: a major challenge

Iraq policy: a major challenge

From:  Ray Close
Date: Feb 18, 2008 11:27 AM
Subject: Iraq policy: a major challenge

To a number of friends, here in America and around the world.

As of course you know, there are many of us here in America who are working hard to ensure that the Bush Administration's decision to invade and occupy Iraq is thoroughly discredited and replaced with a much more realistic and positive approach to that and other regional crisis situations.

I, for one, am not completely confident that we will be successful.  In fact, I am becoming increasingly concerned that John McCain's revised and modified version of neocon strategy will have broad appeal to those many Americans who originally approved of the idea of invading Iraq.  In the face of continually growing evidence over the last few years that the war was turning into a disaster, the majority of these people, chagrined but embittered, have remained silently on the political sidelines.  But they are still with us in large numbers, waiting anxiously for vindication and redemption.  John McCain is offering exactly what they want.

There are, indeed, large numbers of strongly patriotic and well-intentioned Americans who are seizing on superficial evidence of a dramatic turnaround in Iraq to confirm the Bush doctrine that unrelenting military pressure is, as the neocons have preached, the only way ultimately to defeat the alleged mortal threat to America from Islamic extremism.

The presidential election has provided an ideal opportunity for John McCain, who has an admirable record of criticizing the conduct of the Iraq war by the Bush Administration team, to claim that the failure so far to achieve "victory" is simply because of incompetent war management by Washington.  McCain's new mantra is that under his leadership the original justification for launching preventive war against America's enemies will be redeemed and the shining objective of military victory finally achieved.  Senator McCain has thus effectively redefined U.S. aims in Iraq --- combining candid recognition of past tactical errors with a promise to restore American pride, patriotism and sense of noble purpose.  This is strongly appealing to those masses of Americans  who are deeply resentful of accusations that their country's actions have been reprehensible, and that America could be facing failure and defeat in a war to defend Judeo-Christian civilization.  Unfortunately, the Democratic presidential candidates have failed to develop and articulate a new Iraq policy (or a new regional Middle East policy, for that matter) that can promise a similar restoration of American "pride, patriotism and sense of noble purpose".  I'm afraid that alternative strategies for ending the Iraq war are already appearing weak and defeatist in the face of John McCain's accusations that even the discussion of a withdrawal timetable is an act of cowardice, a disgrace to America, the equivalent of "raising the white flag of surrender" to an evil and treacherous enemy.  Lots of Americans are responding enthusiastically to that tone of defiance, especially coming from a legitimate hero who responded in the same spirit to his  Vietcong captors.

One consistent and valid criticism (only one of many) of Bush's war has been, as we all know, that Saddam Hussein's regime was never a host to, or sponsor of, Islamic terrorist activity.  In fact, as has been proven, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq became both a visible symbol of American hostility and aggression toward Islam and a magnet attracting fanatic holy warriors searching for an opportunity to martyr themselves in the Jihadist cause.  For awhile, this view became accepted wisdom, but is now being challenged by what I believe amounts to a dangerous new version of neocon orthodoxy, whose proponents are trying their best to make John McCain the new standard-bearer of their deeply flawed and discredited views of the world in general and Iraq in particular.  Unfortunately, the prospect of a major defeat in the 2008 elections has made a great many angry and frustrated but otherwise sensible conservatives much more receptive to this rationale than might otherwise be the case.

The following op/ed piece in the Washington Post of 17 February 2008 by the Reuel Marc Gerecht, an unreconstructed neo-conservative from the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, is a vigorous refutation of the thesis that the invasion and occupation of Iraq has provided significant ideological inspiration and motivation to large numbers of  extremists around the world to join the fight against America in Iraq and elsewhere. Gerecht's arguments sound scholarly, almost persuasive, but his conclusions are deeply flawed and misleading. I fear, however, that this kind of argumentation will become more common, and that it will be persuasive to many citizens who are tired of defeat and failure and are hungry to hear a note of optimism and confidence.

I am addressing this message only to friends who I believe may share my concerns, and who may be willing to put some effort into evaluating the situation and perhaps attempting to pass on some fresh thinking and creative ideas to those who have influence with key candidates for public office.  I think most of you will agree that there is no time to waste.  If the Iraq situation becomes a major focus of debate in the election,  Democratic candidates urgently need help in formulating a more realistic and constructive set of arguments for dealing with that complex situation than just calling for early withdrawal of our troops. The latter is too simplistic an answer, I'm afraid --- and unfortunately fails to appeal to the more sensitive and intelligent (and even the more patriotic) instincts of the American people.  I hope you'll give these thoughts a few moments of your time, and let me know whether you think my concerns are ill-founded or exaggerated.  I would welcome  your comments and suggestions.

Many thanks, and best regards,


Iraq's Jihad Myths
By Reuel Marc Gerecht
Sunday, February 17, 2008; B07

Among Democrats and even many Republicans, it is by now accepted wisdom that the war in Iraq brought huge numbers of holy warriors to the anti-American cause. But is it true? I don't think so.

Muslim holy warriors are a diverse lot, reacting with differing intensity to the hot-button issues that define contemporary Islamic militancy. For many fundamentalists, what is seen as an unrelenting Western assault on Muslim male honor and female virtue is the core infuriating offense. For others it may be the alienation that second-generation young Muslim men encounter in an immigrant-unfriendly Europe. And for still others, Iraq, Afghanistan, the tyranny of U.S.-backed Muslim rulers and the Palestinian resistance can all come together to convert individual indignities into a holy-warrior faith.

These complexities may help explain, at least in part, why so many secular Westerners seek relief in more easily understood explanations for jihadism (the war in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being the usual favorites) -- explanations that don't probe too deeply into Islamic history and the militant Muslim imagination.

Regarding the Iraq war and jihadism, two facts stand out. First, if we make a comparison with the Soviet-Afghan war of 1979-89, which was the baptismal font for al-Qaeda, what's most striking is how few foreign holy warriors have gone to Mesopotamia since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Admittedly, we don't have a perfect grasp of the numbers involved in either conflict. But the figure of 25,000 Arab mujaheddin is probably a decent figure for those who went to Pakistan to fight the Red Army. Most probably did so in the last four years of the war, when the recruitment organizations and logistics became well developed. In Iraq, we see nothing of this magnitude, even though Iraq, unlike Afghanistan, is in the Arab heartland and at the center of Islamic history. Moreover, for Arabs, getting to Iraq isn't difficult, and once there they speak the language and know the culture. And of course the United States, the bete noire of Islamists, is the enemy in Iraq.

But according to the CIA and the U.S. military, we are now seeing at most only dozens of Arab Sunni holy warriors entering the country each month. Even at the height of the insurgency in 2006-07, the figure might have been just a few hundred (and may have been much smaller).

In the 1980s the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and most well-organized Islamist movement, was at the center of the anti-Soviet jihadist recruitment effort. But in the case of Iraq, the Brotherhood has largely sat out the war. Even in Saudi Arabia, the mother ship of virulently anti-American, anti-Shiite, anti-moderate Muslim Wahhabism, the lack of commitment has been striking. We should have seen thousands, not hundreds, of Saudi true believers descending on Iraq.

Throughout the Arab world, fundamentalism today is much stronger on the ground than it was in the 1980s. Yet the fundamentalist commitment to the Iraqi Sunni Arab insurgency pales in comparison with that made to Sunni Afghans.

A second striking fact about Islamism and the Iraq war is that the arrival of foreign holy warriors is deradicalizing the local population -- the exact opposite of what happened in Afghanistan. In the Soviet war, the "Arab Afghans" arrived white-hot -- their radicalization had occurred at home in the 1960s and 1970s, when Islamic fundamentalism replaced secular Arab nationalism as the driving intellectual force. On the subcontinent, Arab holy warriors accelerated extreme Islamism among both Afghans and Pakistanis. We are still living with the results.

In Iraq, as we have seen with the anti-al-Qaeda, Sunni Arab "Awakenings," Sunni extremism is now in retreat. More important, the gruesome anti-Shiite tactics of extremist groups, combined with the much-quoted statements made by former Sunni insurgents about the positive actions of the United States in Iraq, have caused a great deal of intellectual turbulence in the Arab world.

It's way too soon to call Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda spiritual outcasts among Arab Muslims, but they have in fact sustained enormous damage throughout the region because of Iraq. The lack of holy-warrior manpower coming from the Muslim Brotherhood is surely, in part, a reflection of this discomfort with al-Qaeda's violence, the complexity of Iraqi politics and America's not entirely negative role inside the country. If bin Ladenism is now on the decline -- and it may well be among Arabs -- then Iraq has played an essential part in battering the movement's spiritual appeal.

Iraq could still fall apart (and if an American president starts withdrawing troops haphazardly, it probably will). The country's descent into chaos and renewed sectarian strife would likely reenergize Islamic extremism. But it is certainly not too soon to suggest that Iraq could well become America's decisive victory over Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and all those Muslims who believe that God has sanctified violence against the United States.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former case officer for the CIA.

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