Arguing that there is a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq, the Bush administration convinced Congress last October about the need to invade Iraq as an act of self-defense. A slender majority of Americans now believe Iraq was behind the terrorist acts of 9/11, and would most likely support such a war, with or without UN approval. Unfortunately, like a mirage in the desert, this link is an illusion. There is a real link between al-Qaeda and Iraq, but it is very different.
It is a fact of history that the US decision to prosecute the Gulf War in 1991 spawned al-Qaeda. From the very beginning, Osama bin Laden’s refrain has been that western forces on Arab soil have compromised Arab sovereignty and polluted Islam’s holy lands. Al-Qaeda played on these grievances to recruit young Arabs to its cause. By pointing out the pro-Israeli bias in American foreign policy, Osama gave his message a grassroots appeal on the Arab street. Through the clever use of historical symbols, he has sought to position himself as a modern-day Salahuddin who would wrest control of Jerusalem for the Muslims. Contrary to the image portrayed in the US media, Osama has not mounted an attack on American freedoms. It is a comment on the depth of anti-American sentiment in the region that Osama has been able to call his violent campaign of terror against civilian Americans a jihad, even though Muslim clerics have said that such a terrorist campaign cannot be interpreted as a jihad under Islamic law.
It is useful to recall that the Gulf War was waged by the US to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait. It had UN support, and the forces that went in to fight the armies of Saddam Hussein comprised a large coalition of forces drawn from several Muslim and Arab nations, in addition to the US, Britain and Australia. Even then al-Qaeda was able to portray that war as a crusade, giving credence to Samuel Huntington’s theory about an inevitable clash of civilizations.
This new war has proven profoundly unpopular around the globe. It has been opposed by the 116 nations who belong to the Non-Aligned Movement, the Organization of the Islamic Council and the Arab League, in addition to several key European nations. It appears unlikely that the UN Security Council will support the war. Prosecuting such a war would breach the UN Charter, according to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, stripping it of even the veneer of legitimacy.
The coming war would to be fought largely with US troops, with assistance from Australian and British troops. Neither Arab armies, nor any third world armies, are likely be in the “coalition of the willing,” belying the allegation that Iraq poses a threat to its neighbors. A just-released survey by Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland shows that less than ten percent of the Arab population supports a war against Iraq, and very few people believe that the war would help bring democracy to the region.
President Bush has expressed a hope that this war would lead to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former foreign minister of Israel, finds much that is troubling in this assertion: “The president’s bellicose rhetoric and his intention to invade an Arab country and dismantle its regime by force, however despicable that regime may be, while pretending to ignore the Palestinian tragedy provides a platform for unrest throughout the region.” In retrospect, the war will be seen as a colonial war of the 19th-century genre. Historians are likely to call it “a war to end all peace,” an appellation they have used to capture the strategic myopia of the First World War.
Once hostilities commence, it is likely that Iraqi civilian casualties will occur on a large scale. According to published accounts, the US will fire more than 3,000 cruise missiles on Iraq within the first 48 hours, an amount that exceeds the entire number that was fired in the Gulf War. More casualties will occur as US forces fight their way into Baghdad, fueling resentment on the Arab street. The incoming prime minister of Malaysia, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, worries that “a war against Iraq would be seen in the Islamic world as unfair, and if it causes Muslims to join the extremists,” then moderate Muslim governments would be threatened everywhere.
In other words, the war would succeed in accomplishing the very opposite of what President Bush has sought to achieve. The US president has made a virtue of regime change, and has compared the reconstruction of Germany and Japan after the Second World War with what he is about to undertake in Iraq. However, 21 contemporary historians from Europe and North America have termed this concept “a pick-and-mix history of regime change.” In a letter to the Financial Times, they say that Iraq cannot be compared with either post-war Germany and Japan, since it differs from them in its endowment of natural resources, borders, institutions, religion, political culture and ethnicity.
The US is making rapid strides against al-Qaeda. As a result of Pakistani cooperation, it has apprehended or killed many of its key leaders and appears to be rapidly closing in on the top two. With the capture of the third man, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the organization may have lost its operational capability to mount “spectacular” acts of terrorism. However, all of this will come to naught if the US invades Iraq.
It is likely that this war will add new credibility to grievances about loss of Arab sovereignty. It will complicate the resolution of the Palestinian problem, leading to a rise in anti-Americanism throughout the Muslim world. In a fulfillment of the law of unintended consequences, this war may spawn a second-generation of terrorists even more determined than al-Qaeda to evict US forces from the Middle East, thus defeating the very purposes for which it is about to be fought.
Speaking at Tufts University last week, Bush Sr. said that any military action against Iraq should be backed by international unity. He said the case against Iraq this time was weaker than in 1991, and urged his son to build bridges with France and Germany, rather than to bear grudges.Instead of listening to the neo-conservatives in the administration, Bush Jr. should take a few moments to reflect on his father’s advice. Not only would this be a patriotic thing to do, it would also be very Christian. And it may well lead to a safer America.
1. “Peace in the Middle East cannot wait,” Financial Times, March 11, 2003. Return to text
2. John Burton, “Iraq war ‘risks alienating moderate Muslims,'” Financial Times, March 12, 2003. Return to text
3. Chris Smith, “Question Blair’s policy, not his leadership,” Financial Times, March 12, 2003. Return to text
The author is an economist in Palo Alto, California. He lived in Pakistan during the 1965 and 1971 wars. He has written on Pakistan’s Strategic Myopia in the RUSI Journal, and reviewed Mazari’s book, Journey to Disillusionment for International Affairs. He has authored “Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan.” He is a Fellow of the American Institute of International Studies in California.
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