It is the gravest of mistakes to think of Iraq — or any other nation — in isolation. And it is willfully ignorant to ask when Iraqis will be able to defeat the insurgency, when Americans will withdraw, or when the violence in Iraq will abate. Would you measure the safety of one family’s home without examining the neighborhood it’s in? The security of every nation depends on the actions of its neighbors, and Iraq sits in one of the world’s worst neighborhoods. It can’t be stable and democratic unless and until its neighbors — Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran — end their interference. Unless we abandon Iraq, Americans will continue to die as a direct result of these nations’ actions until they are compelled to behave.
On that terrible morning of September 11, 2001, there was no way to get out of Washington. Sitting in my office about two blocks from the White House and seeing nothing more constructive to do such as run through a subway tunnel, I sat down at my computer and wrote about how we should respond to the most deadly attack on our soil since Pearl Harbor. The article was published in the Washington Times the following day.
The article made two points. First, that we couldn’t allow ourselves to be weakened by empty rhetoric urging a “proportional response.” Our response to the 9-11 attacks had to be decisive, and to be so our counterattack had to be in proportion to our strength and not the enemy’s relative size or weakness. Second, that no matter who the enemy was, and no matter where he chose to seek refuge, we could allow him no sanctuary. We would have had to attack the al Qaeda stronghold wherever it was. Had it not been Kabul but Damascus, Tehran, Beijing, Pyongyang or Moscow our action would have had to be the same. If we had learned anything from Vietnam it was that to allow sanctuary is to hand the means of victory to the enemy.
President Bush took much this same position in his tough speech to Congress a week later. Nations had to choose, he said then, to be with us or with the terrorists. Since then something has been lost. Syria has chosen to be with the terrorists, and we have done nothing decisive about the regime of Bashar Assad. We are paying too high a price — in the lives of our soldiers — for this to continue one moment longer.
Commencing weeks before American forces slashed into Iraq in March 2003, our reconnaissance forces saw a steady flow of cars and trucks going into Syria along the Baghdad-Damascus highway. About ten days into the fighting, there was an intense fight near the border city of al-Qaim where our special forces took on a sizeable Iraqi force moving through al-Qaim into Syria. The fierceness of the fight there — as intense as any other before Baghdad fell — told us that the Iraqis were moving something they thought was of tremendous value. Was it money, weapons or people the Iraqis moved then? It matters not. What matters is that Syria chose to provide first a sanctuary for members of Saddam’s regime and its assets and then comprehensive support for the Sunni insurgents who fight only to prevent Iraq from becoming stable and free, and kill as many Americans as they can in the process.
We know that the majority of the suicide bombers killing people in Iraq come from Saudi Arabia to Syria where they are helped to cross into Iraq. We know that money and weapons flow from Syria to the insurgents in Iraq. We know sufficient details about where the insurgents meet and train in Syria to target those places for attack. “Operation Matador,” the week-long fight along the Syrian border that ended on May 14, disrupted the insurgents’ ability to cross into Iraq. At the cost of at least nine Marine lives, we stopped them but only for a while.
The President has too much on his mind, and his advisers are divided. The CIA and the State Department point to the small amount of cooperation we have been getting from Syria, and insist that we can compel them to do more without taking firm action. The Defense Department is less tolerant. It wants to act, but apparently hasn’t even been allowed to ask the Iraqis for permission to mount an attack into Syria. Our failure to take decisive action costs too much. The time has come to act.
First, either Vice President Cheney or the President himself needs to knock heads together, because no one else can. CIA, State, and Defense have to be brought into line and resolved to action. Then State should deliver a final ultimatum to Assad. If he fails to end his regime’s support for terrorism forthwith — and that means not only the Iraqi insurgents, but Hezbollah and all the others that have operated from Damascus for decades — he must be told we will end it for him. The Iraqi government should be consulted, but its reluctance — if it has any — to a cross-border attack must be dispelled or politely ignored. As soon as it is, special operations forces should cross into Syria covertly, to lead a combined air and ground attack against the terrorists and whatever Syrian assets are supporting them, from Qaim to Damascus. Whatever it takes, that is what we must do.
Syria is the immediate problem regarding Iraq. (Iran is no less immediate; but because of its nuclear program, not its present involvement in Iraq.) Saudi Arabia is a different kind of problem.
The Saudis have, perhaps too late to save themselves, come to realize the dangers of terrorism. But because the Saudis are Wahabis, and because the Wahabi version of Islam is insecure, violent, and hostile, they still don’t take sufficient steps to stop the export of terrorists and terrorism. We can’t disregard the power Saudi oil gives them over our economy. But we can’t be afraid of it either. Their insecurity is our handiest weapon.
Our cadre of evil geniuses can think of many ways to motivate Saudi behavior, and we should be using them all. For example, cautious people that we are, the Pentagon should commission a secret study of how we might intervene to restore order in the former Saudi Arabia after some massive terrorist attack annihilates the Saudi royals, taking some of the oil infrastructure up with them. When that study is leaked (to Bob Novak, of course, not the New York Times) how much more uneasy will rest the heads on which the Saudi crowns lie? Enough, perhaps, to make some greater effort against those Saudis whose business it is to exhort and export terrorism?
The Saudis are crude in their manipulation of us. We should compel them to conclude that Machiavelli was a wimp.
TAS contributing editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (Regnery, 2004).