Al Qaeda is on the run. That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly but surely being decimated. . . . Theyre not a problem anymore.
President George W. Bush
Despite President Bushs expansive and expensive war on terrorism, al Qaedaby apparently and simultaneously bombing several housing complexes in the police state of Saudi Arabiahas shown its continued viability and potency as a terrorist group. According to the Saudi Interior Minister, the attacks were conducted by men who escaped Saudi authorities a week ago, but left behind an arms cache. The Saudi government noted that the men were bent on attacking U.S. and British targets in Iraq, as well as the U.S.-supported Saudi royal family. They chose to do so shortly before Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in Saudi Arabia. In addition, one target of the bombing was a complex housing the employees of an American company that uses former U.S. military personnel to train the Saudi National Guard. Despite victims of other nationalities, early evidence indicates that the main targets of the attack were the United States and Britain, the two nations conducting the war against Iraq.
The terrorist attacks support the views of those who argued against such a war on the grounds that it would increase anti-American terrorism, not reduce it. After arriving in Saudi Arabia, Secretary Powell said: Terrorism strikes everywhere and everyone. It is a threat to the civilized world. Although the Secretarys statement is technically true, he needs to read his own departments reports entitled Patterns of Global Terrorism. Those annual reports regularly indicate that terrorists launching international attacks strike U.S. targets an astounding 40 to 60 percent of the time. Those numbers are unusually high for a nation that has no ethnic or civil war within its borders, has no unfriendly neighbors stoking such internal unrest, and is far removed from the worlds major centers of conflict.
So why are Americans disproportionately attacked by terrorists? President Bush would have us believe that they hate our freedoms (freedom of speech, religion, etc.). In addition to being intuitively unconvincing (if peaceably practiced, how do our freedoms hurt anyone else?), this theory does not explain why countries like Sweden and Switzerland arent attacked. Similarly, some pundits believe that the United States is attacked because it is a rich, capitalist country. Of course, once again, there are many such nations that dont face the same terrorist threat.
Lastly, some believe that the U.S. is attacked disproportionately because of its decadent culturefor example, Hollywood movies, Madonna, etc. Yet repeated polls taken in Arabic and Islamic nations indicate that the people in those nations admire our political and economic freedoms, our wealth, and even our culture, but they object to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
Which brings us back to Iraq. According to anonymous U.S. officials, the invasion of Iraq was designed to show that the war on terror was broader than just an attack on the September 11 terrorists and the Taliban regime that was harboring them in Afghanistan. Of course, by attacking the Iraqi regime, which had no demonstrated connection with the attacks on September 11, the Bush administration haplessly fell into Osama bin Ladens trap. Terrorists, always the weaker party, commonly attack the stronger partyin this case, the United Statesand hope for an overreaction that will generate funding and new recruits. A non-Islamic invasion and occupation of an Islamic nation without a convincing self-defense rationale is sure to fan the flames of the already intense hatred of the United States in the fundamentalist Islamic world.
In addition, in Iraq, the you break it, youve bought it aphorism may hold. Now that the United States destroyed any governing authority in Iraq (as the widespread looting and lawlessness shows), the Iraqi peopleparticularly the majority Shiiteshave expectations that the invading power will make war-ravaged Iraqi society whole again. Failing to fulfill those high expectations during its occupationas is likely given the short attention span the United States has exhibited in Afghanistan, Somalia and Haitithe U.S. military may face terrorist attacks from the many Iraqis who then want the U.S. forces to get out.
A strengthened al Qaeda may not be the U.S. governments only problem. Bin Laden and the rest of his al Qaeda followers are Sunni Moslems. Iraq contains the holy sites for the Shiia sect of Islam. To retaliate for the U.S. occupation of the nation containing those holy sites, the Shiite Hezbollah, an international terrorist group every bit as formidable as al Qaeda, could resume attacks against U.S. targets worldwide (such attacks dissipated after the United States abandoned its failed intervention in Lebanon in the 1980s). Other Shiite terrorist groupsfor example, Hamascould also begin attacking Americans both at home and abroad.
When people in the United States speak of U.S. foreign policy, they often use the term we. Although most Americans supported the war against Iraq, the average citizen might consider that the neo-conservatives currently running the U.S. government have different interests than they do. The neo-conservatives freely use the words American empirean utterance that Americans have avoided ever since they shook off their own colonial oppressors during the American revolution. Empires cost money and lives as defense budgets go through the roof and Americas sons and daughters die in foreign brushfire wars. Now, blowback from such overseas military adventuresin the form of terrorist reprisalshas and will likely continue to harm U.S. citizens even here at home. Throughout history, governments have gone to war and the common people have paid the price. Same stuff, different day.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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