Months before the liberation of Iraq I wrote that we were about to have our great national debate on the war against the terror masters, and it was going to be the wrong debate. Wrong because it was going to focus obsessively on Iraq, thereby making it impossible to raise the fundamental strategic issues. Alas, that forecast was correct, and we’re still stuck in the strategic quagmire we created. Up to our throats. So let’s try again to get it right.
Like Afghanistan before it, Iraq is only one theater in a regional war. We were attacked by a network of terrorist organizations supported by several countries, of whom the most important were Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. President Bush’s original analysis was correct, as was his strategy: We must not distinguish between the terrorists and their national supporters. Hence we need different strategies for different enemies, but we need to defeat all of them.
Afghanistan was the classic example, because the Taliban regime was at once home to, and sponsor of, al Qaeda. Al Qaeda attacked us on 9/11, and we responded against the terrorist organization and against the regime that supported it. Once the Taliban had been destroyed, and al Qaeda had been shattered, President Bush launched a political strategy: support the creation of a free Afghanistan, implant the basic institutions of democratic civil society, work toward free elections so that Afghans could freely govern themselves.
Call it democratic revolution.
That was supposed to be the model for the rest of the war, and it was the right strategy. Use military force where necessary, against both the terrorists and the sponsoring regimes, and support democratic revolution. The whole region understood that strategy, and you could see the consequences. There were pro-democracy demonstrations, even in the most unexpected places, such as Damascus and Riyadh, where none had been seen in human memory. In Iran, where the democratic opposition had shown its passion for several years, the tempo increased. And all the terror masters, in Baghdad, Tehran, Damascus, and Riyadh, trembled, fearing that their moment of power and glory was about to pass.
The president clearly understood both the stakes and the opportunity. The “Axis of Evil” was–and is–very real, as the tyrants of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea knew full well. There is now abundant evidence of the close cooperation among them, and with their Libyan, Syrian and Pakistani friends, ranging from nuclear projects to other weapons of mass destruction, and to vital support (sometimes in tandem, sometimes separately) to the terror network.
The terror masters also knew that their greatest threat came from their own people, who were disgusted at the oppressive and corrupt dictatorships, and who saw the United States as the source of their imminent liberation.
Again, the president described the situation well: Time was not on our side, for delay would enable our enemies to regroup and plan for the next challenge. I kept imploring “faster, please,” because it was luminously clear that the terror masters were planning for the battle of Iraq. They publicly announced that they would attempt to do in post-liberation Iraq what they had previously accomplished in Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s: Use a combination of terror, kidnapping, and political/religious agitation to break our will, drive us out, and expand their own power.
The terror masters could not possibly stand by and permit an easy triumph in Iraq, for that would seal their own doom. For them, the battle of Iraq was an existential conflict, the ultimate zero-sum game. If we won, they died. But, blinded by our obsession with Iraq, we did not see it. For once, the president’s intuition failed him. This failure to recognize the enormity of the stakes, and hence the intensity of the coming assault, was heartbreaking, for us and the other members of the Coalition, and for the Iraqi people. It was the ultimate intelligence failure, a pure failure of vision.
Had we seen the war for what it was, we would not have started with Iraq, but with Iran, the mother of modern Islamic terrorism, the creator of Hezbollah, the ally of al Qaeda, the sponsor of Zarqawi, the longtime sponsor of Fatah, and the backbone of Hamas. So clear was Iran’s major role in the terror universe that the Department of State, along with the CIA one of the most conflict-averse agencies of the American government, branded the Islamic Republic the world’s number one terror sponsor. As it still does.
Moreover, the Islamic Republic was uniquely vulnerable to democratic revolution, for, by the mullahs’ own accounting, no less than seventy percent of the Iranian people hated the clerical fascist regime in Tehran, and hundreds of thousands of young Iranians had shown a disposition to challenge their oppressors in the streets of the major cities. Had we supported them then and there, in the immediate aftermath of Afghanistan, when the entire region was swept by political tremors of great magnitude, the evil regime might well have fallen, thereby delivering an enormous blow to the jihadis all over the world. I do not think we would have needed a single bomb or a single bullet.
So be it. God created profoundly fallible creatures on this earth, and human history is mostly the story of error and accident. There are many battles ahead, and we may yet engage on the full battlefield. One thing is certain: There will be no peace in Iraq so long as the terror masters rule in Damascus, Riyadh, and Tehran. Those who attended closed discussions with the Iraqi defense minister a week ago heard a long list of evidence and cries of outrage against the murderous mullahcracy next door, and even though the leaders of the West–sadly including some of our own–continue to pretend that diplomacy may yet settle things in the Middle East, they cannot possibly believe it. This is a fight to the finish, still a zero-sum game.
The main problem remains the failure of vision, never more evident than in the first presidential debate. The president dismissed the question about Iran by talking only about the nuclear “issue,” while Senator Kerry, incredibly, restated his belief that the same policy that failed to deter North Korea would somehow work with the Iranians. The president knows who the Iranians are, while the senator is an active appeaser. But neither was inclined to deal with the central issue, which is that the Iranians, the Syrians, and the Saudis are killing our men and women in Iraq, and we are playing defense, which is a sucker’s game.
In the past week, the Iranian people have again taken to the streets in every major city in the country. The chatterers pay no heed, because there is only one zero-sum game that interests them, which is the election, and the election is about Iraq, or so they say.
Except that it isn’t, really. It’s about the war. The real war, the regional war, the war they are waging against us even if we refuse to acknowledge it.
–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.