Listening to Kerry
His Iraq-is-a-diversion claim exploits a real weakness.


Andrew C. McCarthy

We often tend to reject the message simply because of who the messenger is–especially if the messenger can’t seem to keep his story straight from one day to the next. But it would be a mistake to disregard John Kerry’s latest metamorphosis on Iraq. His speech Monday, arguing that military operations there have been a “profound diversion” from what is still foolishly called the “war on terrorism,” warrants attention and introspection.

Senator Kerry’s claim is not frivolous. Yes, bottom line, he is wrong, but only insofar as the war, properly framed and understood, is concerned. That is why the challenge Kerry appears, finally, to have settled on for the electoral-stretch run will find some traction. The Bush administration’s explanation and prosecution of the war have been hampered by occasional skittishness and lack of clarity.

That hardly means Kerry would do a better job, and he may be the most ill-suited candidate in history to champion the virtues of clarity and constancy. It is President George W. Bush, however, who has made the relevant judgment calls, and his stewardship will be the heart of this debate. The failure to be sufficiently clear and convincing about precisely why a course of action has been taken necessarily leaves one vulnerable to the charge of having lost one’s way.

What does Iraq have to do with the war we engaged after 9/11? There must be a straightforward, compelling answer to that simple question. Right now though, in the public mind, supporters of the administration’s policy appear unsure of their footing–due to self-made complications.


It became a rallying cry among President Clinton’s detractors that “words matter.” Well guess what? They still do. Saying you are in a “war on terror” when you are actually in a “war on militant Islam” may sound like a mere rhetorical twitch. It may be rationalized–as people who consciously refrain from saying what they are really up to always rationalize that some higher purpose is being served–as an admirable bow to Muslims the world over, one aimed at avoiding even the appearance of stigmatizing their belief system.

Nevertheless, rhetorical error is no trifle because it can easily metastasize into policy error, our words being an essential conveyance of our aims. There is a very good argument that this has happened with Iraq, and that the fallout could be a failure to accomplish what we started back in October 2001. And, lest we forget, what we started was about the vital protection of the United States, not about remaking the world.

“War on terror,” as previously argued here, is an ill-conceived and vaporous term. “Terrorism” surely is not our enemy. It cannot be an enemy because it is not an entity, it is a method. But even if one entertained the possibility that we could be at war with “terrorism”–loosely construing it as shorthand for “terrorists”–the phrase still fails. We are not even pretending to be fighting all terrorists. The Basques, the Tamil Tigers, and the many other regional groups that practice terrorism but do not target the United States are objects of our disdain, but they are certainly not our adversaries in this war. Indeed, if they are, we should stop now because it is then true, as the critics bray, that this war can never be ended or won.


No, we are fighting a very particular enemy: militant Islam. It is a global network of identifiable militias, as well as their state and non-state sponsors, who espouse and support an interpretation of Islam that calls for violent jihad against the United States and our allies. In the short term, that enemy seeks to alter American policy; in the long term, it would supplant our constitutional order with a caliphate that accords with Wahhabist principles. That is the enemy.

The forces who adhere to the enemy’s creed and its imperatives, moreover, have demonstrated themselves incorrigibly dedicated to our destruction. They are thus not to be cultivated, co-opted, or otherwise negotiated with. They must be eliminated, as the Nazis and other totalitarian regimes have had to be defeated utterly–until they were no longer a dire threat.

If the foregoing description of the actual enemy is true, that ineluctably has certain consequences for the conduct of the ongoing war. By avoiding clarity to serve political correctness, by speaking vapidly about “terror” when we really mean Islamic militants, we disserve those ends.

For starters, having a just war against militant Islam means there must be some clear, comprehensible nexus between the operations of militant Islam and the opening of any front in the war. Afghanistan was an easy case–so manifest no effort was required to make it: The al Qaeda network orchestrated the 9/11 attacks (as well as others) and Afghanistan was where al Qaeda was given safe harbor. Q.E.D.

Iraq, on the other hand, was a tough case–as the cases against the worst bad guys usually are. Senator Kerry’s “diversion” argument is wrong because there was a rich connection between Saddam Hussein’s heinous regime and militant Islam–which fully explains why al Qaeda and its affiliated groups were in such a superb position to align with their Baathist confederates and spearhead the vigorous resistance still confronting our forces. But such a case has to be publicly made, its components marshaled with conviction.


Kerry and others have been able to make the diversion argument colorably because we–the administration and its supporters–have failed to explain ourselves adequately. The public has ceaselessly been told our enemy is terror, not militant Islam. The constant theme has been: it’s the tactics, not the tacticians–almost as if the planes had flown themselves into those towers. This was a slippery slope that allowed the articulation of a casus belli in Iraq not only to focus on the WMD threat but to have discussion of that threat overwhelm a consideration more central to the mission begun in Afghanistan in 2001: Iraq’s ties to militant Islam.

Make no mistake: That Iraq may have had WMDs was extremely important. Given the solemn conditions for ending the 1991 Gulf War and the succeeding resolutions Saddam flagrantly violated, his possession of WMDs might even have been a valid reason, independent of the war on militant Islam, to invade Iraq and depose his regime. But Iraq operations were not framed that way. They were cast as an essential part of the wider war, and, as part of the war on militant Islam, WMDs were secondary. For a new front not to be a diversion from that war, there needs to be an established nexus to militant Islam.

Moreover, if that nexus had been convincingly established, the failure to find WMD stockpiles, while not unimportant, would not remotely be the problem it has become. The Taliban did not have stockpiles of WMDs either, but no one dares suggest Afghanistan was not a meritorious front in the war. No, the case was made that the Taliban provided meaningful support to our enemy: essentially, sanctuary and training grounds for al Qaeda.

The case could convincingly have been made–and it still can–that Iraq similarly aided, abetted, trained, funded, and coddled militant Islam. It need not be (although I think it could end up being) as strong as the case against the Taliban. Given Saddam’s track record and the high likelihood that he maintained WMDs, it would be fair to argue that he posed a much greater danger than the Taliban. And had we backed down in 2003, had Saddam gotten out from under the sanctions, that danger would have increased geometrically. Thus, for reasonable people, the proof of alliance with militant Islam need not be as unambiguous as it was with the Taliban. But a nexus is still a prerequisite if Iraq is not to be successfully portrayed as a diversion, and the President must be prepared to illustrate that nexus in a commonsense way that persuades Americans.


It is safe to say at this point that not much more help in this regard will be forthcoming from the intelligence community (IC). The IC should long ago have moved heaven and earth to uncover these ties. It has instead obscured them–trying like defense lawyers to knock the evidence down piece by piece, and never stepping back to view the mosaic. Not all of the IC, but an important core of naysayers. So now the IC has a self-interest. It has been galactically wrong about so much, it has been so roundly criticized, that it finds itself facing the unwelcome prospect of drastic reconstruction. It does not need another black eye. It has little motivation to prove a proposition that would underscore the naiveté of a groupthink presumption that secular Saddam would never have made common cause with Islamic terrorists. So some will fight it to the bitter end.

First some of them claimed, like Richard Clarke in 2004 on 60 Minutes (but not like Richard Clarke in 1998 explaining President Clinton’s retaliatory strike against the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory), that there was no connection whatsoever. When that couldn’t survive the laugh test given the years of multiple contacts, the IC said well, sure, but there was no meaningful relationship, just unconsummated flirting. That, naturally, couldn’t bear scrutiny either: Al Qaeda is a full-time terrorist organization dedicated to the destruction of America, and Saddam was a virulently anti-American tyrant; both were under international suspicion, and neither had time for casual “contacts”–at considerable risk to themselves–to chat about how chilly it can get in caves this time of year.

Let’s say the FBI, circa 1960, had come back from surveillance of a restaurant meeting between Carlo Gambino and Joseph Bonanno, and reported: “Well, there was a contact, and sure, they are full-time crooks, and yes, they do run crime syndicates. But, after all, they’re from different families, and different families probably wouldn’t trust or cooperate with each other. For all we know, they were probably discussing the pasta.” You wouldn’t say, “Oh, I feel better now–that ‘contact’ was probably nothing.” You’d say, “We need a new FBI.” The image of Iraq and militant Islam huddling together is not different–except that contacts between them were incalculably more perilous for us than a couple of mafia dons carving up an extortion racket.

Still, the IC has minimized them. The current story, if you can follow it, seems to be that there may have been collaboration but there was no operational relationship. This, near as I can tell, means that we don’t have Saddam’s fingerprints, at least at this point, on the 9/11 hijacking attacks, the October 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, or the August 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (i.e., the three terrorist attacks universally attributed to al Qaeda).

This, we are now reminded with numbing regularity, is the version of history swallowed whole by the 9/11 Commission. That is the same panel that trashed the IC for being unreliable and ineffective–so much so that it must, the Commission insists, be radically reformed. It is the same panel that took the IC to task for its near-total dearth of intelligence sources inside Iraq and the al Qaeda network who could tell us what either was up to before 9/11. Yet, the commission has somehow accepted as gospel the IC’s impenetrable analysis of the al Qaeda-Iraq relationship. And it did so even though we now know that much of what the IC believed about Iraqi WMDs–the subject it was convinced it had mastered–was wrong.


Nevertheless, what comparatively little we do know about Iraq and militant Islam is more than enough for the Bush administration to craft a tight response that answers Kerry’s diversion gambit. The commission’s assessment, after no meaningful investigation on the issue, should not itself become a diversion.

It makes no sense, in the midst of a hot war against militant Islam, to be quibbling over whether “contacts” between the enemy and the regime of the world’s most vicious and erratic despot–contacts that nobody disputes happened–were “meaningful,” “collaborative,” “operational,” or whatever the euphemism of the month may be. Again, think of the Taliban. They were not directly implicated in 9/11, the Cole or the embassy bombings either. It could equally well be said that the Taliban did not have an “operational” tie to al Qaeda. But does anyone conceivably think it was wrong, that it did not serve the vital interests of the United States, to depose the Taliban? Of course not. The Afghan mullahs knowingly helped militant Islam function as a lethal, evil force.

That should be our standard. Iraq helped militant Islam thrive. As former CIA Director George Tenet represented to Congress in October 2002 (and reaffirmed in March 2004), the “contacts” stretched back a decade, involved high-level officials on both sides, and included weapons training (in the areas of poisons, gases and conventional bombs) as well as negotiations about weapons acquisition, sanctuary, and reciprocal non-aggression. Under Saddam, the notorious Abu Musab Zarqawi and his northern Iraqi confederates in the Qaeda-connected Ansar al-Islam, flourished. The relationships they forged with the regime have seamlessly evolved into the terrorist resistance that has been killing Americans and our allies, in the most brutal fashion imaginable, for the last 17 months.

Those circumstances must be considered in light of other indications about Saddam’s anti-American animus and demonstrated propensity to facilitate terror. These include the harboring of 1993 World Trade Center bomber Abdul Rahman Yasin; the harboring of Abu Nidal; the attempt to murder former President George H. W. Bush; the attempt to recruit Islamic militants to bomb Radio Free Europe in Prague; the years of firing at our planes in the no-fly zone; the still unexplained participation of an Iraqi intelligence operative at a Kuala Lampur planning meeting for the 9/11 attacks; the still unresolved (but concededly much disputed) possibility that 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence officer; the reward payments to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers; and the unbridled celebration in Saddam’s controlled media following the 9/11 atrocities.

That other nations may have helped the jihadists more does not detract from the rightness of our cause in Iraq. It may simply mean there is much more to do to root out this blight. But Iraq is where we are now, and Iraq–more importantly–is where the enemy has assembled its forces for a decisive battle. This is no diversion. How we respond may well dictate the outcome of the war against militant Islam.


Thinking about the war’s outcome implicates a second salient point. Contrary to the increasingly received wisdom, we are not in Iraq–or Afghanistan for that matter–to transform tyrannies into democracies. It would be great, and surely in our interest, if we could accomplish that as a corollary. But it’s not why we came. The war on militant Islam is about eradicating a mortal, global threat to the United States. It is, moreover, worth bearing in mind that wiping out the enemy, aside from being the first and foremost imperative, happens also to be the best path to stability and, eventually, democracy in places like Iraq.

In the wake of the WMD intelligence debacle and our lack of clarity about the nexus between Iraq and militant Islam, we have allowed the mission to be dangerously inverted in a way that puts American lives in peril, both presently and in the future. The Fallujah standoff this past spring–a paralysis that only postponed an inevitable confrontation with a now exacerbated problem–elucidates the pernicious effects of our airy “war on terror” rhetoric.

A “war on terror” is an enterprise vague enough for easy morphing into a claim that overcoming “terror” means establishing democracy rather than defeating Islamic militants. Once you start to think that way, it is a short path to concluding that the key to victory is to instill in Iraqis a spirit receptive to democracy. Therefore, you reason that our job is to tread lightly in hornets’ nests like the Sunni Triangle, expect appreciation for our restraint, hope that the terrorist strongholds will somehow be drawn into the newly free political process, and prove to the whole of Iraq that we are not mere warriors but agents of freedom. It sounds noble. It is doubtless terrific grist for campaign sloganeering. And…it is both delusional and not why we are in Iraq.

To the contrary, a “war on militant Islam” is a mission crystal clear. It says: Our enemies have demonstrated that they will not be rehabilitated; we’re here to kill or otherwise permanently neutralize them because, if we don’t, they will live to kill us another day. It thus reasons that if our enemies are in Fallujah, we need to go into Fallujah and wipe them out. If that upsets parts of the Iraqi population, that’s regrettable, but in the long run it gives them a better chance of future success, and, in any event, it’s why we are in Iraq. We should make no apologies for doing what we went in to do.

Simply stated, this war is not a struggle to create stable democracies that, secondarily, might themselves keep our enemies at bay. It is a war to root out and destroy militant Islam, to vindicate the highest purpose of government: American national security. We should prosecute this war with the expectation that the accomplishment of our primary goal will produce conditions that make stability and, hopefully, democracy plausible–if the indigenes are willing to do the hard work needed to make that happen. We are not, however, guarantors of their future; it is our own future that has caused our paths to cross.

Why do I say we are imperiling future as well as current success? Because eradicating militant Islam will be difficult, but not nearly as difficult as establishing democracies wherever hunting down militant Islam may take us. If, due to a failure to describe our mission correctly, we have allowed that mission to be contorted such that erecting democratic institutions is now an operating cost of self-defense, Iraq will almost certainly be the end of the line. That could be a catastrophe.

The enemy that threatens us is not just in Afghanistan and Iraq. Militant Islam plots in or derives support from Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. We do not have to go to all those places to win; President Bush’s display of resolve has, for example, pushed Pakistan to address its own problem and may be having a similar effect with the Saudis. But, for us to win, everyone must be on notice that we are willing and able to go to those places if necessary.

The American people have more than enough stomach for a fight, indeed for any number of fights, if they are convinced that Islamic militants are in those places working to kill us, and that we need to go in and demolish them. After Iraq, however, they will not have the will to risk U.S. blood and treasure so that those who berate our presence, after we undertake the heavy lifting of wresting their countries from despots and terrorists, might someday live in freedom. If Americans come to believe that the price tag for self-defense includes the obligation to remain in war zones until nirvana has been achieved, they will not pay it. And paralyzing national security that way would be a tragedy. Militant Islam would not only survive, but spread and become more menacing.

In that sense, Kerry is correct–although not for the reason he suggests–when he says there has been a profound diversion. It’s not that there has been a diversion from “the war on terror.” Rather, the label “war on terror” is itself a roadmap to diversion. It too easily conflates the essential national-security mission with the desirable, but decidedly not essential, goal of erecting free, enduring political systems in the Muslim world.


As part of a war on militant Islam, Iraq is no diversion. Why we went there in the first place must be better explained–it was about militant Islam every bit as much, and more, as about WMDs. Why we are still there now must be better understood–we need to eradicate the enemy arrayed against us, even if that means acknowledging it was a mistake to declare the end of major combat operations before the enemy was completely defeated.

When the enemy is vanquished, we can turn our attention to what should be much brighter prospects for Iraqi democracy. But Iraqi democracy is not why we are there, and how much we can afford to expend on such an effort will depend on how decisively militant Islam has been suppressed as a threat to our interests, and how much of our resources are needed to fight it elsewhere.

Though President Bush has some major repair work to do here, it bears emphasizing that Senator Kerry, while onto the right issue, is the wrong candidate to exploit it. He is even more reluctant than the president to state clearly that the enemy is militant Islam. Further, even if “terror” were the enemy, Kerry doesn’t think we should be at war at all–seeing terrorism as a matter for law enforcement, to be investigated and prosecuted once we get hit again. He may say Iraq is a “diversion,” but it doesn’t divert from anything he actually wants to get back to.

In a time of peril, President Bush is the only serious national-security candidate. But he has to do a better job of explaining that the war is against militant Islam, that Iraq facilitated our enemies and was thus a worthy extension of the war, and that the primary goal in Iraq now is to annihilate the forces responsible for the beheadings, the bombings, and the barbarity. The election and, more significantly, the war hang in the balance.

Andrew C. McCarthy, who led the 1995 terrorism prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.