Many of us who have admired President Bush for his amazingly good instincts in foreign policy are now afraid that he has lost his compass. In part, this may be due to political considerations. He may think that it’s time for a pause in the war against the terror masters, and we should therefore take a moment for reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for diplomatic reason with Israel and the Palestinians. In all likelihood he is hearing that he suffered politically from the military exertions in the first two campaigns of the war, and that the American people, along with public opinion in traditionally allied countries, want a breather.
He has also been told — indeed we have all been told, by everyone from Colin Powell to Condoleezza Rice — that the Middle East has indeed been transformed by the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq, and that we can now advance the cause of freedom by less-violent means. Thus, Powell is stronger and Rumsfeld is weaker, we are turning to the U.N. to bless our peacemaking efforts, and even cooing in the direction of La France.
There is a certain logic to this view, but only if you ignore the facts on the ground. As Amir Taheri has well explained, the fall of the Taliban and the liberation of Iraq have indeed had a profound effect on the rest of the region, but it is not yet a fait accompli. It is a great start but not yet a great accomplishment. The same potential existed at the end of the Gulf War, but we threw it away by abandoning the Iraqi people and those others in the region who dreamed of newfound freedom, in the name of good diplomacy and sweet reasonableness. We can do it again, by making the same mistakes George W.’s father and his current secretary of state made in 1991: stopping too soon, and failing to support our friends and defeating our enemies.
President Bush has said from the beginning that this is a broad war, and we will have to fight several enemies with several strategies. Yet listening to his speech Sunday night, one did not hear much of this. One heard about Iraq, with a few throwaway lines about Afghanistan. That suggests a narrowing of the administration’s vision, and it is a very dangerous phenomenon, because there are still several regional enemies — with potent allies within Iraq — who know that the war is not yet over, and they are still fighting to win. We have seen those enemies at work in Iraq in recent weeks: big-time bombings of the Jordanian embassy and U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, and the assassination of Ayatollah Hakim in Najaf, outside the shrine of Ali.
Our response to these assaults has been unsatisfactory. Instead of empowering Iraqis of proven democratic conviction and pro-American action over more than a decade, we turned over at least part of security in Najaf to the so-called Badr brigades, who were trained in Iran by our enemies. Some of the Badr fighters are working for the mullahs rather than for a free Iraq, and the Iraqi people know that. Our willingness to strengthen our enemies sends a chilling message to Iraqis hoping for a purge of their oppressors (why has there still been no Nuremberg trial for Saddam’s henchmen?) and an active campaign against the thousands of terrorists entering Iraq from Iran.
The lack of action against the Iranian-backed terror campaign is all the more perplexing since the facts are widely accepted. Sunday’s Washington Post caught up with NRO with an excellent article detailing plans by al Qaeda, before the liberation of Iraq, to launch a terror war against us in Iraq. This reportage is doubly encouraging. First, since it depends on governmental sources, it means that analysts in the executive branch are beginning to understand the central role of Iran in the events in Iraq. And second, it helps the journalistic community catch up with events. Perhaps we will hear more about the Iranian campaign (and, in time, about the Syrian and Saudi support for the terrorists) than about the presumed vast Baathist underground, operating on its own against Coalition forces and NGOs. There are certainly Baathists at work in Iraq, but a good deal of their potency depends on the mullahs.
Which brings us back to the Hakim assassination, which was an event of considerable importance. People who grew up with Hakim, and remained in contact with him during his years in Iranian exile, speak of a man who knew he was under house arrest in a foreign country, who hated the mullahcracy, and who swore that, if he ever had the chance, he would help Iraq resist the forces of the Islamic Republic. He may have gulled the mullahs while he was in Iran, but they recognized an enemy when they saw one, and eliminated him as quickly as they could. As in the case of the Ayatollah Khoei, who was killed at war’s end in Najaf, the vulnerability of moderate Shiite clerics to jihadists is terrible for the morale of religious leaders we should be supporting and protecting.
Instead of this sensible policy, we are piously pronouncing our evenhandedness. Our top people in Iraq constantly repeat their official mantra: “We don’t play favorites.” Thus, while Iran and Saudi Arabia are pouring millions of dollars into the country through a network of Shiite philanthropic organizations, our allies get little or nothing. The anti-American religious organizations are rolling in cash, and they buy support with it, while our friends go begging. This leads ordinary Iraqis to conclude that we either don’t know our friends from our enemies, or we don’t care about our friends. Either answer is bad for morale.
But none of this is as alarming to our prospects for winning the war by transforming the Middle East, as our recourse to the United Nations. Whatever our diplomats may think, this gambit is viewed as a sign of weakness and fecklessnss all over the region. It is viewed as a deliberate dilution of our power and a first step toward disengagement. It terrifies our allies, and encourages our enemies. You can be sure that the tyrants in Tehran, Damascus, and Riyadh are now purring with pleasure, telling themselves that they were right all along about the Americans: no stomach for a long, tough fight. Keep killing them, and they will go home.
I have a strong premonition of new attacks against us, at home and abroad. The Osamas and the Mughniyahs feel vindicated, and smell blood. They will now go all-out to press what they see as their advantage.
As for the problem so many in the administration believe is the central issue in the Middle East (the peace process, whatever its current label), recent events should have demonstrated that we should devote our energies to winning the war against the terror masters, and not waste time and effort trying to unscrew the unscrutable. You can’t make peace until the war is won. Never could, never will.
— Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. Ledeen is resident Scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.