JERUSALEM — Let’s face it: The war against radical Islam has bogged down. It cannot be unbogged until the U.S. regains the offensive.
After 9/11, it was quickly established that the Taliban would be brought down. After that, there was a big policy fight even within the U.S. over whether to go after Saddam, but it was always clear that in the mind of U.S. President George W. Bush that Iraq was next.
Now, instead of a next target, we have two items of outstanding business: the Arab-Israeli conflict and consolidating democracy in Iraq. And in both cases America seem to have bogged down.
Regarding the conflict here, this is certainly true. It is primarily the result of the substitution of Bush’s dump Arafat speech with the road map and the placing of all bets on the Arafat/Abbas push-me-pull-you.
In Iraq, things may be going better than they now seem, particularly if the U.S. manages to kill Saddam Hussein. Even then, however, Iran, Syria, and their jihadist allies will continue to try to bloody America and prevent its success.
Which brings U.S. to the problem. There is a zero-sum game here. Either Teheran and Damascus are on the defensive or Washington will be. Both sides cannot be winning. Iran and Syria seem to understand that the best defense is a good offense, but the U.S. is acting as if it does not. The most likely explanation for this is that the U.S. understands that Iraq is a must-win, but precisely because it is so focused on Iraq, taking on another candidate for regime change is considered biting off more than the system can chew.
We do have to remember that the war in Iraq ended less than five months ago, so some patience is in order. But now the bad guys have a very clear goal: Tie the U.S. in knots in Iraq and with the roadmap. The U.S. does not have a similarly clear idea for the next step against radical Islam. What to do?
There actually is no real choice. Just as the U.S. cannot afford to lose in Iraq, it cannot afford to exempt Iran and Syria from the Bush Doctrine: Supporting terror is punishable by regime change. If the terrorist network senses that the Iraq war was the end, rather than a cardinal demonstration of, the war against it, it is a matter of time before terrorist attacks against the West multiply in size and number.
Let’s say the U.S. realizes this, but is still not ready to target other regimes. Such reticence is understandable, however unwise. Yet it is no excuse for a false, all-or-nothing dichotomy. Who says that just because the U.S. does not want to invade or immediately seek the overthrow of the Iranian and Syrian regimes that there is nothing to be done?
Now the U.S. is talking tough and doing little — a dangerous combination. Bush said, for example, that Syrian and Iranian support for terrorism is
“unacceptable.” A welcome consensus is also growing that the current Iranian regime must, at all costs, be prevented from developing a nuclear weapon. The U.S. has been lobbying hard against assorted trade deals with Iran and to keep Russia from supplying the Iranian reactor it helped build with fuel rods.
But much more could be done. Topping the list should be to unmask the abominable human-rights record of the Iranian regime. Iran holds thousands of political prisoners and brutally represses dissent, yet is not thought of as human-rights abuser in the league of Saddam Hussein, Burma, or even China. True, Iran did not make Freedom House’s 2003 list of World’s Most Repressive Regimes, but it came close: a rating of 6 for lack of political and civil rights, where 7 is the bottom of the barrel.
The U.S. should find ways to talk about human rights in Iran, including by inviting Iranian dissidents to the White House. Raising this issue will make it harder for Western countries to continue to negotiate massive business deals with Iran. Even more importantly, it will encourage the 65 percent of Iranians who are under 30, admire America, and want to be free.
Syria, on the other hand, is on the list of most repressive regimes. The Freedom House report explains that a brief easing dubbed “Damascus Spring” reached its zenith in January 2001 when 1,000 Syrian intellectuals called for comprehensive political reforms. By the end of that year new restrictions were imposed and 10 leading reformists were arrested. In 2002, the “Damascus Ten” were sentenced to prison and over a dozen prominent
journalists and human-rights activists were arrested.
In addition to highlighting Syria’s abominable human-rights record, its hand in drug running and counterfeiting, and its support for Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups, it is incomprehensible why the U.S. is practically silent about Syria’s illegal occupation of Lebanon. Actually, Israel’s presence in the West Bank, an unallocated portion of the British Mandate, is legal; while Syria’s presence in Lebanon, a sovereign Arab member of the United Nations, is not.
America’s administrator in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer, said right after the bombing of the U.N. headquarters that it could have been the work of terrorists from Syria. If the U.S. is openly blaming Syria for terrorists in Iraq, how cannot it afford not to take action? That action should include moving American troops to the Syrian-Iraqi border and embarrassing the French (admittedly a tall order) into joining a diplomatic campaign to free Lebanon.
All of this can be done even if the U.S. does not have a clear idea as to how the Iranian and Syrian regimes will ultimately fall. A plan for regime change is best, but a minimal alternative is to follow the simple blueprint these two enemies are using: The more problems we make for the other side, the less trouble they can make for us. Incrementalism is not ideal, but in this case, far superior to the combination of bluster and inaction.
— Saul Singer is editorial-page editor of the Jerusalem Post and the author of the upcoming book, Confronting Jihad: Israel’s Struggle & the World After 9/11.