Saturday, June 26, 2004

One War Too Many

I had a conversation with a colleague in the blogosphere yesterday about the situation in Iraq, and in a larger sense, the merits of the decision to invade. As I was launching a two-pronged attack against the wisdom of the invasion on the one hand, and about the gross mismanagement of the rebuilding process on the other, I raised the issue of the effect of the invasion, and the subsequent occupation, on the mindset of Muslim men and women throughout the region. One of my arguments centered around the fact that the Bush administration greatly underestimated how the invasion and reconstruction would inflame the Muslim world, and how this radicalizing impetus has provided an enormous boon to the recruitment efforts of al Qaeda and the myriad like-minded splinter groups that have sprung up in their wake.

Not to mention the fact that these anti-American jihadist groups have become more respected, admired and supported by the populations in all nations across the Middle East and greater Muslim world, whereas liberal democratic reformers have been labeled as pro-American and thus completely discredited and silenced. Today, there is no greater stigma than to be considered pro-American in the Middle East, but this wasn't necessarily the case after 9/11, nor was it the case immediately after the invasion of Afghanistan. The problem is, though, that is harder to isolate these terrorist elements and neutralize them when they enjoy the support of the people. And of course, democracy and reform will not take root in a region where the concepts have become poisonous by association with the United States.

His response to my argument was, "Since you were for the invasion of Afghanistan, can you explain why the invasion of Afghanistan alone would not had the same impact?"

This is a good question, and one that requires more than a pithy answer. First, we must look at the historical context. The sympathy and good will felt toward the United States from the international community immediately after 9/11 was unprecedented. There was an outpouring of solidarity from all corners of the globe, from offers of cattle from Masai tribesman in Kenya and Qaddaffi publicly condemning the attacks from Libya, to public displays of unity in Europe and Australia. Many around the world, including to a somewhat lesser degree in the Middle East, believed that the US had a right, even an obligation, to respond to attacks launched by al-Qaeda and their patrons in Afghanistan, the Taliban.

Even the much maligned French contributed troops to the effort (some are still there today), and many other Muslim nations offered at least logistical support and use of airspace. NATO and the UN willingly, and without arm twisting, gave their imprimatur to the invasion, a symbolism that is not lost on all. Pakistan, a longtime supporter of the Taliban as a means of extending its sphere of influence in Afghanistan, was even willing to abandon its strategic goals, put aside religious and tribal allegiances, and cooperate with the United States' effort. The fact that much of the heavy fighting was conducted by Afghan Muslims in their own country also quelled fears and discredited theories of American/Israeli imperialism.

Even still, there were elements in the Middle East and greater Muslim world that were angered by the invasion of Afghanistan. This opinion was not ubiquitous or universally accepted, but was not altogether insignificant either. Nevertheless, the US had no choice but to accept the negatives, due to the obvious necessity of disrupting al-Qaeda's safe-haven and overthrowing its state sponsor.

But here is the crucial moment. Given the fact that Muslim passions were already somewhat stirred by the military incursion into Afghanistan, it was folly on a mammoth scale to almost immediately invade a second Muslim country, Iraq, which had no connection to the attacks on the US, and thus was not as justified in the World's eyes (especially the Muslim world's). Whereas the United States needed to improve our standing in the region and communicate our values to the Muslim street through skilled diplomacy, even-handed mediation in the Israeli/Palestinian dispute and a re-invigorated sense of purpose in assisting reform movements and democratization, we instead chose an unprovoked, pre-emptive military action which is ultimately far less persuasive or effective in winning hearts and minds. I cannot overstate the futility of this gambit, nor the deleterious effect it had on our standing and credibility in the World community, especially in regard to the war against radical Islamic terrorism.

The unfounded and, previously, easily discredited conspiracy theories of an American/Anglo/Israeli crusade, began to gain credence as two fronts of U.S./British military intervention emerged. All of a sudden Osama's wild ramblings began to appear prescient. Neither NATO nor the UN approved the invasion and World opinion, even non-Muslim, was against the war. The case that was made was an unconvincing amalgamation of humanitarian concern, Saddam's WMDs, shadowy "ties" to Al-Qaeda, and apparent "imminent" threat. The World remained skeptical, and a shaky coalition of mostly new entrants on to the World stage was formed, with nearly all member states contributing under a couple hundred troops each.

Soon, the media was broadcasting images of dead Iraqi civilians, including dismembered women and children, killed in the invasion. The horrors of war, and the deaths of neighbors and ethnic brethren, entered the living rooms of the Middle East. But even still, there was a chance to contain the PR damage due, largely, to the quick toppling of Saddam and optimism over the potential for democracy and freedom in the erstwhile despotic Iraq.

Unfortunately, yet predictably, the publicly given justifications for the war began to crumble. No WMDs were found. Public appearances like Powell's before the UN were revealed as farce, when the ominous warnings about mobile bio-weapons labs turned into the embarrassing reality of weather balloon filling stations on wheels. No significant links to al Qaeda were established, and the sole remaining justification, humanitarian relief/democratization, also began to erode. The mismanagement that ensued severely impacted the already somewhat negative image of the American occupation: there was a failure to restore water and electricity (electricity is still not at pre-invasion levels), there was and still is widespread looting and crime (while the ministry of oil remained tightly guarded), there still is a failure to provide security and stability, violent clashes occur daily that leave civilians dead in Fallujah, Najaf, Karbala, and elsewhere, etc., and then the jewel in the crown: Abu Ghraib.

Abu Ghraib shattered, at least for the Muslim public, the last remaining rationale: that the US invaded Iraq for humanitarian reasons. Of course Saddam was worse, by a country mile, but the US was trying to claim the moral high ground as a justification for war and this cannot be achieved by claiming our abuse, torture and murder of detainees was not as bad as Saddam's. Especially when the civilian deaths and prisoner abuse is occurring at the hands of an occupying "Christian" nation with a leader who regularly uses Christian crusader rhetoric, and the public is predisposed to mistrust and suspicion of the foreign power's motives. It might not be fair, but the images from Abu Ghraib will not be forgotten in the Muslim world for decades, and the rehabilitation of our image will take equally as long.

So, it is my contention that if we had not invaded Iraq while we were fighting a war in another Muslim nation, and especially while Afghanistan's fate was still so uncertain, we could have avoided the tidal wave of anti-Americanism that is engulfing the Muslim world, and greatly undermining our ability to fight the war on radical Islamic terrorism. On the contrary, if we had dedicated our time and resources to rebuilding a more stable peaceful Afghanistan (a daunting task even under the best of circumstances), we could have gone a long way to improving our image in the region.

In addition, diplomatically, we should have been providing every assistance possible to liberal democratic reformers wherever their efforts manifested. From a policy perspective, we should have used the sympathy and standing post-9/11 as leverage against recalcitrant Muslim states in order to speed the reform process. The threat of force would have remained a valuable bargaining tool, especially after Afghanistan, as would our justifiable insistence on change given the gruesome realities of the 9/11 tragedy. We could have injected a new sense of urgency into the stagnant pace of change.

Ironically, our military is so stretched thin today by the all-consuming necessities of Iraq, and our ability to enlist the support of allies so impaired, that using the threat of military action has been removed from our arsenal, or at least made far less palpable. As evidence, we should be confronting Iran for its dogged pursuit of nuclear weaponry and active interference in Iraq through the infiltration of Iranian intelligence officers whose purpose it is to embolden the Shiite militias and political groups, to the detriment of efforts to compromise. Instead, our threats and warnings have been tempered because the Bush administration is aware the our military capacity is too compromised to launch an attack on Iran, and worse still, Iran knows it.

As for the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, one of the festering sores of Middle East relations, and a fertile well-spring of radicalized young Muslims, progress was and is imperative. The Bush administration needed to take a bold and courageous stance with both parties, and let them know that the conflict as it had existed had to end. He should have taken an active and politically fearless approach to creating even-handed solutions, while providing humanitarian aid to the suffering Palestinian populations.

I'm not suggesting that any of these diplomatic steps would have been easy, or completely successful, but have you seen how hard our current approach is? And under our current approach we are alienating large swathes of the populations that we are trying to appeal to. Even when diplomacy is less than perfect, if done with some skill, it inspires good-will, cooperation and progress not animosity, hatred and violence. At no other time in our history where these measures more crucial.

At the very least, we should have thought long and hard about the repercussions of invading another Muslim country at such a delicate time. And, further, whether the then current leadership, prone to choosing ideology over historical fact, and like-minded yes men over critical analysts, was up to the task. Of course, this is a nuanced outlook, and nuance seems to have become a bad word these days.

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