Al Qaeda on the brain

President bush’s speech last week arguing that the United States must stay in Iraq to defeat the Al Qaeda leadership reassembling there ranks as one of his most vacuous. It drew on intelligence that was conveniently (and perhaps selectively?) declassified in order to make the dubious case that the Al Qaeda in Iraq today is the same enemy that attacked us on 9/11.

Bush repeated his tendentious trope: “A key lesson of September the 11th is that the best way to protect America is to go on the offense, to fight the terrorists overseas so we don’t have to face them here at home.” This led directly to the unstated conclusion that the United States must stay in Iraq for as long as it takes to conquer evil. The speech leaves little doubt that the president intends to keep fighting in Iraq until Jan. 20, 2009 -- if Congress will let him.

Either way, the public shouldn’t believe that Al Qaeda is responsible for most of Iraq’s problems. Foreign jihadists have certainly done a wicked job of urging on the Sunnis and Shiites who are doing most of the killing. But the key question is who should be fighting Al Qaeda -- and all the other groups slaughtering Iraqi civilians. The answer, of course, is the Iraqis. They’re the most qualified. Sunni tribal leaders in Al Anbar and Diyala provinces are already on the job, supported by the U.S. Iraqis have the language, intelligence and understanding of the enemy. They are fighting for and on their home ground. It is American hubris to think we can do it better.

It’s also misleading for Bush to imply that there is some finite number of volunteers for jihadist duty, that they’re all being drawn to Iraq and that exterminating them there will bring victory. The daily suicide bombings and other attacks in Iraq, in Afghanistan and elsewhere indicate that, after six years, we haven’t diminished the unending supply of jihadists willing to die for their cause. Killing a few hundred or a few thousand of them in Iraq is like whacking the cockroaches you see running across your kitchen counter. It ignores the zillions that are breeding in the walls.


So here are the real questions, Mr. President: How do we degrade Al Qaeda’s ability to replace the leaders we manage to kill? How do we dry up its source of recruits? Who can convince young radicals that killing themselves and scores of innocents won’t serve Islam or improve Muslim life in Iraq, the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, New York or anywhere else? What political, social and religious progress, what kind of education, what kind of economic development will weaken the appeal of the fanatical Islamist message?

Not until an American president gives the world meaningful answers to these questions can we have a “global war on terrorism” worthy of the name.