Last week, the administration released an intelligence summary that warns al-Qaeda is getting stronger.
The president pointed to this as proof that Iraq is central to fighting AQ. Asked if the report actually demonstrates that Bush’s efforts to defeat AQ aren’t working, he replied that things would be far worse if he hadn’t invaded Iraq.
Mull that over for a second. It’s a rhetorical get-out-of-jail-free card. You’re Bush, and six years later things are getting worse, not better. No problem! Just claim that things would really be dire if not for your brilliant leadership. It’s a completely irrefutable claim, because you can’t rewind history and try again.
Unfortunately for Bush, such a bald assertion relies heavily on his credibility on security matters. And he has (charitably) almost none left. He’s made so many blithe assertions that have turned out to be flat wrong that nobody believes him anymore.
This ties in with Bush’s continuing efforts to tie our opponents in Iraq to 9/11. During a speech at the end of June, he noted that the people we’re fighting in Iraq “are the people that attacked us on September the 11th.”
Except that for the most part, they aren’t. Al Qaeda in Iraq is a mostly local group that arose in 2003 in response to our invasion of Iraq. It has established some contacts with AQ Central and pledged it’s loyalty to AQ. But they are at best a local franchisee using the AQ brand name. They are not the people, or even the same group, that attacked us in 2001. Further, they represent only a small portion of the combatants in Iraq.
No matter how you slice it, painting Iraq as a war on al-Qaeda is a flat lie. “War on Islamic extremism” might be closer to the truth, and even that doesn’t encompass the growing, unrelated sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni.
As far as AQ goes, invading Iraq did nothing but help them. Sure, we’re killing a few insurgents and jihadists, and some of them are truly bad people. But we haven’t hurt AQ at all. Instead, we’ve given them a major recruiting tool and a place for jihadists of all stripes to hone their tactics – tactics that are starting to show up in Afghanistan. AQ itself sits fat, happy and generally safe in the tribal regions of Pakistan.
Speaking of which, it was a hopeful sign when Pakistani troops stormed the Red Mosque in Islamabad. Any government that wants to be taken seriously simply cannot allow armed groups to challenge them, and the extremists in Pakistan have simply gotten bolder and louder in the absence of government pressure. Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s born-of-necessity truce with extremists bought temporary stability in Pakistan, but it gave extremists a safe haven that has helped destabilize Afghanistan.
Now tribal leaders have renounced the truce, with accompanying violence, and Musharraf is moving thousands of troops into the region to try to keep order. Sucky as it is for him, it’s good for us. Fighting with Pakistani troops diverts resources the Taliban would otherwise focus on Afghanistan; the military incursion disrupts their rest and training operations; and Musharraf’s survival is increasingly tied to defeating the insurgents. All these things should help — assuming Musharraf both survives and doesn’t cut another deal.
On the downside, the fighting could spur more tribal members to join the fight against either us or Musharraf. But at least we’re attacking a known insurgent stronghold, not gallivanting off on a distracting adventure in, say, Iraq.
A fight like this — against known extremists in known extremist areas — is the kind of fight I and many others can support. It may be hard, it may be bloody, but there’s no doubt about who the enemy is or why we’re fighting them.
Which puts the lie to one final Bush rationalization. On Thursday he referred to the American people’s “war fatigue”, as if we’re all wrung out by four years of fighting.
Maybe he just means people are tired of the war. But the “war fatigue” locution rings strongly of a paternalistic displacement of blame. The war’s fine; people are just (understandably, but wrongly) getting “fatigued” by it.
Framed as such, the idea of “war fatigue” is nonsense. The term calls to mind a society stretched by privation, the way the French were wrung out by the end of World War I — economy in shambles, bled white by the carnage at the front. But as far as Iraq goes, what’s there to be fatigued about? The war simply doesn’t impact your average citizen except as headlines and images on TV. Bush has borrowed the money to fight it; the war has been accompanied by tax cuts, not tax hikes. It’s being fought with a volunteer military, and most Americans don’t actually know anybody who has served, much less anyone who was killed or wounded. The military death toll, while the highest since Vietnam, is still pretty small measured by population or even a percentage of soldiers in theater.
People aren’t tired of the war on terror; they are tired of the war in Iraq. But it’s not because of the strain it has put on society. It’s because the war has been shown to be a misbegotten idea badly executed, a mind-bogglingly expensive waste of resources, lives and national prestige.
While al-Qaeda recovered and grew stronger. Nice work, Mr. President.