The CIA’s recent botched attempt to kill al Qaeda’s number two man, Ayman Zawahiri, in Pakistan illustrates why the Bush administration’s overly aggressive “war on terror” actually motivates terrorists to attack the United States. Certainly, capturing or killing the brains behind al Qaeda is an important goal. Unfortunately, in the U.S. method of warfare—which unduly emphasizes attrition, heavy firepower and sophisticated weaponry, even against guerrillas and terrorists—the technology of killing has outstripped the quality of human intelligence needed to hit the correct targets. The CIA’s unmanned Predator drone fired missiles that killed many Pakistani civilians, including women and children, but apparently not Zawahiri.

Making things even worse, the killing of women and children continues to spark public outrage all across Pakistan, leading to mass protests in all of Pakistan’s major cities and the trashing and burning of a U.S.-supported aid organization. Such public ire will make it even less likely that the United States will receive accurate future intelligence about where Zawahiri and his boss, Osama bin Laden, are hiding, even though the prices on their heads are substantial.

And to shore up the popularity of his war on terror at home, which has been dragged down by an incongruous, unnecessary, now unpopular war in Iraq, President Bush has combined these reckless military actions with cowboy rhetoric, which only further stoke the flames of anti-U.S. hatred among radical Islamists. Bringing back the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric used during the Cold War against the “godless Communists,” the administration is now implying that those with “too much god of an alien kind” are trying to build a worldwide empire that could again threaten the United States. The president has cast the war on Islamic terrorism as a contest between the men in white hats who advocate freedom and those with black headgear who want to create “a totalitarian Islamic empire reaching from Spain to Indonesia.”

Yet bringing back the caliphate—the political and spiritual leader of Sunni Islam who ruled a united Islamic world—is a long-term objective of even moderate Muslims. As a result, to the Muslim world, the president’s war on terror looks much like a war on Islam that threatens to make the clash of civilizations a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yet even the unlikely uniting of the Islamic world would not necessarily create a severe threat to the United States. Arab countries, only a subset of the Islamic world, have not even been able to unite against Israel, their mortal enemy. It would be even harder for the more geographically and ethnically diverse global Islamic community to unite under one ruler. Even if the entire Sunni Islamic world coalesced rapidly into one empire, any threat to the United States—which would not be inevitable—would be tempered by the fact that many of the countries uniting are economic basket cases.

In addition to shoring up flagging public opinion at home, the president’s talk of an Islamic empire is designed to mask the real reasons that al Qaeda attacks the United States. The core of al Qaeda’s gripe with the United States is its military presence in the Persian Gulf to guard U.S. oil supplies and support for corrupt Gulf leaders who sell that oil. In a recent videotape, Zawahiri warned Americans: “...Your calamity will not end, unless you leave our lands and stop stealing our resources and stop supporting the bad rulers in our countries.”

But because the Gulf countries are heavily dependent on petroleum sales for their revenues (oil deals make up between 65 percent and 90 percent of their export income, depending upon the country), they have every incentive to sell oil to the world market, regardless of whether the U.S. stations military forces on their lands or props up their despotic rulers. In short, U.S. forces are not needed to defend Persian Gulf oil. Even if they were necessary, the job could be done with no permanent U.S. military presence on Muslim lands. In Gulf War I, Persian Gulf oil was successfully defended without a prior land presence in the Gulf. Land forces were brought in only when a threat arose. And since then, the threat to oil has decreased.

President Bush should ratchet down the war on terror to make it more effective. The United States should improve human intelligence and strike al Qaeda only when the information is bulletproof. More importantly, to reduce terrorists’ motive for attacking the United States in the first place, the administration should quietly withdraw the unneeded land forces from Persian Gulf countries and its support for their authoritarian, venal rulers.