On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, the great policy question is whether the Bush administration’s approach to the War on Terror has made us safer. Prepping for his 2008 presidential run, Sen. John Kerry on Saturday asserted that Bush had made us less safe. Although the Bush administration has many notable failures, Kerry’s case as he presents it is unconvincing.
By going to war in Iraq instead of concentrating on defeating al-Qaeda, Bush has “widened the terrorist threat instead of defeating it,” Kerry said.
“There is simply no way to overstate how Iraq has subverted our efforts to free the world from global terror. It has overstretched our military. It has served as an essential recruitment tool for terrorists. It has divided and pushed away our traditional allies. It has diverted critical billions of dollars from the real front lines against terrorism and from homeland security.”
In an op-ed for the New Hampshire Union Leader this past weekend, Kerry said:
Iraq has made America less safe. The terrorists are not on the run. Terrorist acts tripled between 2004 and 2005. Al-Qaida has spawned a decentralized network operating in 65 countries, most of them joining since 9/11. Only Dick Cheney could call this a success.
It’s time to refocus our military efforts from the failed occupation of Iraq to what we should have been doing all along: destroying al-Qaida. We need to redeploy troops from Iraq — keep up the training and counter-terror operations, establish an over the horizon military capacity — and free up resources to fight the War on Terror.
(Incidentally, Kerry launched this attack while slamming Bush for politicizing 9/11.)
But has the Bush administration really lost sight of destroying al-Qaeda? Has terrorism become more of a threat?
Since 9/11, the United States and its allies have destroyed more than 75 percent of al-Qaeda. That statistic does not come from the White House press office. Washington Post reporter Dana Priest noted it in a talk at the Cato Institute last week. Priest, whom no one would call an apologist for or ally of the administration, also noted how the Bush administration skillfully used diplomatic relationships — particularly with France — to pursue, capture, detain and interrogate al Qaeda terrorists. Through a combination of military force and diplomacy, the United States has crippled al Qaeda.
Not only has the United States done exactly what Kerry and his fellow Democrats claim has not been done — use diplomatic relationships to decimate the group that attacked us on 9/11 — but the war in Iraq has marginalized al-Qaeda in the Muslim world. That is one of the conclusions of a new report released last week by the UK’s Royal Institute for International Affairs, also known as Chatham House
It certainly is true that the war in Iraq has to some degree hardened Muslim opinion against the United States and even radicalized a portion of the moderate population. But it also has turned Muslims off to al-Qaeda and even to the use of violence to pursue Islamic goals, Maha Azzam, a researcher at Chatham House, concluded. After noting that the War on Terror has significantly weakened al-Qaeda, Azzam’s report finds three primary reasons for al-Qaeda’s loss of support in the Muslim world, the first being that “for the vast majority [of Muslims] al-Qaeda is also seen as tainted by its perpetuation of sectarian violence in Iraq.”
Secondly, there has been a heightened radicalization of the middle ground in the Muslim world. A growing number have embraced Islamist politics but will not sanction al-Qaeda’s tactics and will pursue democratic avenues when they are made available. This radicalization may itself be a worrying development for the West, but it is also weakening al-Qaeda, whose legitimacy and ambition rest on approval from the Muslim masses….
Thirdly, there has been a growing discomfort and opposition religiously and morally to terrorism among Muslims. Al-Qaeda has driven a wedge between Muslim communities not about the importance of regional and international politics and the role of the US, but about the justification of violence in the name of Islam. This is perhaps one of the most significant ongoing developments and one which will determine the nature of the Islamists’ struggle against their governments and the West in the future.
Azzam found that al-Qaida enjoyed a surge in popularity in the Muslim world immediately after 9/11, but that the war in Iraq turned the tide, significantly weakening Muslim affection for the terror group and terrorist tactics in general. Though the war has spawned a lot of al Qaeda imitators, none is as organized or capable of massive destruction as bin Laden’s organization once was.
The Chatham House report concludes that
“Of the three main grievances held by the majority of Muslims against Western policy in the region, US involvement in Afghanistan (even within a NATO context) and in Iraq is likely to prove temporary, despite the present inability of the Iraqi government to gain control.
The two other issues may prove intractable. First, Muslim populations feel that their undemocratic regimes are supported by the West…. Secondly, the Arab-Israeli conflict continues to be a festering wound.
In other words, if the West succeeds in establishing a democratic government in Iraq that puts pressure on neighboring regimes to give their people more say, that will play in our favor among the majority of Muslims. If we pull out and let Iraq fall to the totalitarian thugs, as we did after the first Gulf War, it will confirm in Muslim minds that the West does not mean what it says about promoting democracy.
This is why Bush wants to keep the fight going in Iraq until its democracy can stand. Kerry wants out next year, no matter what. Based on Azzam’s assessment, Bush’s strategy is more likely to endear us to Muslims in the long run.
If the measure of success in the War on Terror is, as Kerry suggested, wiping out al Qaeda, then the Bush administration can hardly be called a failure, as Kerry did. Al Qaeda is, in fact, not only on the run but reduced to a fraction of its former self, which is almost certainly one of the major reasons there has been no al Qaeda attack on U.S. soil in five years.
AS FOR AFGHANISTAN, KERRY claims that it represents the real fight in the War on Terror and that Iraq is a sideshow that has diverted necessary resources. As evidence he cites NATO commander Gen. James Jones’ call last week for more troops. But Jones asked only for 2,500 troops, and U.S. News & World Report reported that the real trouble was not a lack of U.S. troops, but reluctance to engage the enemy on the part of our allies: “An unspoken gripe: Some countries haven’t made good on promised support, and a number — among them Germany and Spain — have held their troops away from the combat zone in southern Afghanistan where troops from Britain, Canada, and the United States are heavily engaged.”
Kerry claimed that we were losing the fight in Afghanistan because Bush was too focused on the diversion of Iraq. But that’s not what NATO is saying. Brig.-Gen. David Fraser, head of NATO’s southern Afghanistan operation, said last week, “We’ve got the Taliban surrounded,” the Calgary Herald reported. He called the recent rise in violence by Taliban forces their “last stand.”
NATO Secretary General Jaap De hoop Schaffer told ABC News, “The resistance by the Taliban is more stiff than we expected when we went in. But that’s the reason that General Jones, supported by me, is now asking for more.
“I can tell you that the nations, NATO allies, have already promised more forces than are on the ground actually in Afghanistan, so first of all they should fulfill their promises.”
In short, it’s not that the United States has troops in Iraq, it’s that NATO countries have not sent the troops they promised in the first place.
There are lots of different ways one could measure success in the War on Terror. By Kerry’s own measure — defeating al-Qaeda — the United States is hardly failing.
After five years it is too early to assert with confidence whether, on the whole, the War on Terror is headed for long-term success. But based on the available data, it does not seem farfetched to conclude that so far it has, despite the misjudgments and missteps, made us safer.
Perhaps another president, a Democratic president, would have handled everything better and made us even safer. But to assert that Bush’s policies have endangered us because Osama bin Laden is still at large and al-Qaeda fighters are still running around is not a serious critique. The Bush administration has a long way to go to make us SAFE. That it has not done. But has the War on Terror made America less vulnerable to a massive terrorist attack than it was on September 10, 2001. It sure looks like it.
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