Iraq in its current borders has existed only since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, but its predecessors in the land along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers have played starring roles on the world stage since before biblical times.
So, in some ways, it is not surprising that Iraq may now be the hinge of world history, the turning point in the struggle to prevent militant Islam’s attack on the West from getting out of hand and dominating the history of the first part of this century.
To understand how central militant Islam’s war with the U.S. and the West could be, you have to think about what the world would be like if 9/11 turned out to be only a prologue and there were many large terrorist attacks by militant Islam in the U.S. and perhaps elsewhere in the West.
In the U.S., major successful terror attacks would result in multiplied security measures affecting the quality of life in U.S. cities, making the U.S. more like Israel and resulting in serious costs to the economy, sharp changes in relationships with resident Muslims, a dramatic reduction in willingness to receive Muslim visitors, and urgent and insistent demands on Muslim countries to stop hosting and supporting terrorist organizations.
The reactions to these efforts to protect America against terrorism, and the thrill many Muslims would feel on seeing the U.S. powerless to stop Muslims from wounding the U.S. would probably increase anti-American feeling in many Muslim countries and sharply reduce American (and perhaps European) willingness to travel in these countries.
In brief, there would begin to be a separation of part of the world from the Muslim countries. Such an escalation in the war of militant Islam against the West would dramatically reshape world affairs in ways that are difficult to imagine.
How dramatic the effect would be would depend on how much terrorism there was, but there are no guarantees that we will not have to face the equivalent of five or 10 September 11s a year, or even much worse.
We can’t know how great this danger really is, but there is so much evidence that a much greater war with militant Islam is possible that we should build our policy around an effort to prevent that escalated war.
We know of the breadth and depth of hatred of the U.S. and the West in parts of a Muslim world which is so large that even 10 percent of it can be a major force. We saw on 9/11 that at least parts of militant Islam know no limits on what they are prepared to do against the U.S. And while there are widely different estimates of how much Muslim support there was for those who slaughtered Americans at the World Trade Center, it is clear that there was no general Muslim revulsion against such behavior, no broad community reaction that would rule out further attacks.
No one can be terribly confident that the defensive measures the U.S. has been taking within its borders since 9/11 will reliably protect against competent and determined terrorist organizations if they have safe havens abroad. And the existence of weapons of mass destruction multiplies the limits of destruction potentially possible.
Therefore there does not seem to be any prudent argument against Americans devoting themselves to preventing this war from getting out of hand. The only issue is to make sure that we do not, in trying to prevent the war from escalating, increase the danger instead of reducing it. But unfortunately it is not necessarily true that inaction is safer than action. And there is no chance that we can reduce the danger by being nicer to Muslims.
Why is Iraq so important? What are the two alternative results of the struggle in Iraq which could determine whether militant Islam’s war against the U.S. escalates and becomes the center of world history for at least the next decades, or recedes into a threat that was mostly averted?
The first alternative could happen if the Iranians, Syrians, and Wahhabis succeeded in organizing enough Iraqi opposition to the U.S. presence to provide political cover for a terrorist war (which some would call a “guerrilla war”) in Iraq against the U.S. and its Iraqi “collaborators.” Initially, the terrorists would all be supplied and directed by outside agents (Iran, Syria, international Wahhabi institutions such as al Qaeda, and perhaps others) working largely through Iraqis.
As terrorism forces the U.S. to use harsher and harsher measures to protect its personnel, the amount of Iraqi support for demands that the U.S. get out of Iraq, and for terrorist actions against the U.S., might well increase. One or more genuinely independent Iraqi organizations demanding U.S. withdrawal could be created with perhaps some covert influence from the outside agents.
There would be substantial political support for the anti-occupation position from Western Europe, and from some Americans.
The U.S. would be in a very bad position. Muslims would see the U.S. as doubly weak. First, because it was not able to control Iraq. Second, because it would have allowed Iran, Syria, and the Wahhabis to defy American threats and organize terrorism against American troops. There would also be daily television footage of dead Iraqis and of U.S. troops “mistreating” Iraqi citizens — just like the pictures from Israel — stirring anti-U.S. emotions all over the Muslim world.
This could go on month after month, with little apparent hope for a way out. We would be both weak and provoking — a bad combination.
This danger could be overcome if the Iraqis were sufficiently united in support of the Iraqi Governing Council and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Popular unity against the terrorists would not necessarily bring terrorism to a complete halt, but it could hold it to a tolerable level, and it could make the U.S. position politically sustainable. But while logically the Iraqis should unite against the terrorists, it does not seem impossible that American enemies could succeed in sowing division among Iraqis who have not been free to practice mature politics for decades.
And, contrary to the myth that the only thing that really counts is “the hearts and minds” of the people, small groups that are well-organized, well-financed, and capable of killing, can have major effects on the political situation even if they have little “real” public support.
Even before Saddam was removed many predicted that Iraqi political unity could not be achieved without a new dictator, quite apart from any question of foreigners trying to sow division. While united Iraqi political support is more than possible we cannot be sure that it will be achieved. Disunity within the U.S. government has so far worked against the effort to create unity among Iraqis.
If the Iranian-Syrian-Wahhabi campaign to divide Iraqis and embarrass the U.S. in Iraq succeeds, Muslims will be encouraged to believe that fighting the U.S. can succeed and it is likely that we will not be able to prevent the disaster of an escalated war with militant Islam.
We should be clear that there is no substantial Iraqi movement or desire for the U.S. to leave Iraq now. While today there are plenty of Iraqi complaints against the U.S., the invasion was immensely popular. But there are broad and deep Iraqi feelings that Iraq should be governed by Iraqis, not Americans (and not the U.N.), and the sooner the better, especially if the U.S. stays to help. But, as sophisticated independent observers such as Amir Taheri report, it is clear that not many Iraqis want the U.S. to leave now or are in any sense inclined to take sides against the U.S. in a struggle with Iranians, Syrians, and Saudis.
The other side of the hinge of history, like the disastrous first scenario, starts with America’s enemies choosing to make their stand against the U.S. with covert action in Iraq. This decision is what has made Iraq and the actions surrounding it potentially decisive.
When the danger of defeat becomes apparent it could lead the U.S. to realize that to protect itself it must act against its attackers, each of which have governments which are weak and unpopular and engaged in indefensible activities.
The U.S. has no choice about fighting to resist its enemies in Iraq, and it has a good chance of success. But that struggle may well become so difficult and uncertain that it would be imprudent for the U.S. not also to use political action against the attackers at home. None of the governments involved have broad public support at home, and all use brutal police-state measures to stay in power.
Iran is already included in the Axis of Evil. Syria is “terror central” and involved in many attacks against Americans, as well as in drug smuggling and forging U.S. currency. Saudi Wahhabis are responsible for a major share of the growth of radical Islamism all over the world.
If the sense develops among U.S. political leaders that we are in danger in Iraq and that Saudis are part of what is threatening us, it may well push a slowly developing U.S. movement toward a radical change in policy toward the Saudis over the top.
There are many political and economic measures the U.S. can take to further weaken the governments of Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia (if it is not induced to stop Wahhabi support for actions against the U.S. in Iraq).
One of the simplest things the U.S. can do is to stop giving these governments legitimacy and support by having high-level contacts with Americans. The U.S. strengthens a government when the president or secretary of state talks to a leader of that government, regardless of what is said at the meeting. A government is weakened when its leaders cannot get appointments to see high U.S. officials. The U.S. does not have to let Iran use the Khatami branch of its regime to involve the U.S. in negotiations it can then use to show its internal opposition that the regime will survive with U.S. help.
Similarly, opposition leaders are strengthened when they get international attention, which the U.S. can easily provide. Local opposition groups can also be helped by money, by radio and TV broadcasts, and by other kinds of political action. The U.S. is a great power; there are many things it can do to undermine a weak and unpopular government.
It is quite plausible that within a year after the administration as a whole — including the State Department — decides to do what it can to encourage the fall of the governments of Iran and Syria, and if necessary Saudi Arabia, these regimes will have fallen to their internal enemies.
We can’t count on democracy coming after. But it seems rather likely that most possible successors in Iran would not have the intense commitment to supporting terror and opposing the U.S. that the current regime does.
In Syria a new, non-Alawite regime would not have the same incentives to support terror and oppose peace with Israel that the current regime has as a result of being a minority regime.
While a new regime in Saudi Arabia could be more openly hostile to the U.S. it might well have trouble holding on to the eastern province, which contains all the oil, and where Wahhabis are an oppressive minority.
Whatever their inclinations, it seems reasonably probable that the successor regimes will conclude that it is imprudent to interfere in Iraq and to harbor or support terrorist organizations.
The result would be the end of the war against the occupation in Iraq, a good chance for a reasonable Iraqi government, and the successful withdrawal of the U.S. from Iraq.
Since Iran, Syria, and the Wahhabis are responsible for the majority of militant Islamic terrorism, changing these regimes would mean that most current terrorist organizations would be eliminated. At that point it would not be hard to get the minor Arab supporters of terrorism to stop doing so.
Pakistan would still be a problem, but less so with the removal of Saudi Wahhabi money and in the aftermath of American success in the Middle East.
This would likely lead the Islamic world to conclude that attacking the U.S. could achieve nothing, and therefore at most only fringe groups with no safe havens would try to make terrorist attacks against America. Although widespread Muslim hatred of the U.S. and the West would continue, the threat of escalated war by militant Islam would have been averted for now and there would be time for other trends within Islam to contest for leadership of the Muslim world, and for the processes of peaceful change and development to work as they have done in other parts of the world.
Today we need to understand that Iraq contains both possibilities: disaster and the big step that could prevent an escalated war with militant Islam.
Appreciating the danger will convince us to take the actions that may be necessary to prevent disaster. Appreciating the value and possibility of victory will help gain support during the difficult period before it can be achieved.
The danger in Iraq does not imply that it was a mistake for the U.S. to remove Saddam. There was no possibility of the U.S. inducing Arab governments to act strongly against terrorist organizations had Saddam been left in power.
The U.S. response to the danger of militant Islam must have three parts. First, defensive measures against terrorism in the U.S. Second, eliminating safe havens for terrorist organizations abroad — which means primarily inducing Muslim governments to stop harboring terrorist organizations and demonstrating U.S. willingness to use power. Third, a long-term effort to help moderate Muslims reduce the influence of militant Islam among Muslims generally.
Since militant Islam has chosen Iraq as its battleground against the U.S., two of the most likely outcomes are political action by the U.S. that helps produce new regimes in Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, forestalling a great escalation in the war; or a defeat for the U.S. in Iraq which makes such a disastrous escalation virtually unavoidable. A third possibility is U.S. success in Iraq without changing regimes in Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.
As these regimes fear, such a success in Iraq may well lead indirectly, or by later U.S. political action, to the same result a little later.
— Max Singer is a fellow at the Hudson Institute and the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies of Bar-Ilan University. This piece originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post and is reprinted with permission.