Politics & Policy

Values and Interests

The "insurgency" and the future of the Middle East.

The notion that we are fighting an “insurgency” largely organized and staffed by former elements of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime is now fully enshrined as an integral piece of the conventional wisdom. Like earlier bits of the learned consensus–to which it is closely linked–it is factually wrong and strategically dangerous.

That it is factually wrong is easily demonstrated, for the man invariably branded the most powerful leader of the terrorist assault against Iraq–Abu Musab al Zarqawi–is not a Baathist, and indeed is not even an Iraqi. He is a Palestinian Arab from Jordan who was based in Iran for several years, and who–when the West Europeans found he was creating a terror network in their countries (primarily Germany and Italy) and protested to the Iranians–moved into Iraqi Kurdistan with Iranian protection and support, as the moving force in Ansar al Islam.

You cannot have it both ways. If Zarqawi is indeed the deus ex machina of the Iraqi terror war, it cannot be right to say that the “insurgency” is primarily composed of Saddam’s followers. Zarqawi forces us to think in regional terms rather than focusing our attention on Iraq alone. Unless you think that Iraqi Defense Minister Shaalan is a drooling idiot, you must take seriously his primal screams against Iran and Syria (“terrorism in Iraq is orchestrated by Iranian intelligence, Syrian intelligence, and Saddam loyalists”). Indeed, there has been a flood of reports linking Syria to the terror war, including the recent news that the shattered remnants from Fallujah have found haven and succor across the Syrian border. Finally, the Wahabbist component carries the unmistakable fingerprints of the quavering royal family across the border in Saudi Arabia.

The terror war in Iraq was not improvised, but carefully planned by the four great terror masters (Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia) during the infuriatingly long run-up to the liberation. They made no secret of it; you have only to go back to the public statements of the Iranian mullahs and the Syrian Baathists to see it, for top Iranian officials and Bashir Assad publicly announced it (the mullahs in their mosques, Bashir in a published interview). They had a simple and dramatic word for the strategy: Lebanon. Assad and the mullahs prepared to turn Iraq into a replay of the terror war they had jointly waged against us in Lebanon in the 1980s: suicide bombings, hostage-taking, and religious/political uprisings. It could not have been more explicit.

Some of our brighter journalists have recently written about Iraqi documents that show how Saddam instructed his cohorts to melt away when Coalition forces entered Iraq, and then wage the sort of guerilla campaign we now see. But neither they nor our buffoonish intelligence “community” have looked at the documents in the context of the combined planning among the four key regimes. Anyone who goes back to the pre-OIF period can see the remarkable tempo of airplanes flying back and forth between Damascus, Baghdad, Tehran, and even Pyongyang (remember the Axis of Evil?), as military and intelligence officials worked out their strategies. Some of those flights, as for example those between Saddam’s Baghdad and the mullahs’ Tehran, were a kind of man-bites-dog story, since in the past such flights carried armaments to be dropped on the destination, whereas in 2002 and early 2003 they carried government officials planning the terror war against us in Iraq.

The myth of the Baathist insurgency is actually just the latest version of the old error according to which Sunnis and Shiites can’t work together. This myth dominated our “intelligence” on the Middle East for decades, even though it was known that the Iranian (Shiite) Revolutionary Guards were trained in (Syrian-dominated, hence secular Baathist) Lebanon by Arafat’s (Sunni) Fatah, starting as early as 1972. The terror masters worked together for a long time, not just after the destruction of the Taliban. But we refused to see it, just as today we refuse to see that the assault against us is regional, not just Iraqi.

Many of the statements emerging from official (that is, both governmental and media) Washington nowadays reflect yet another error, a corollary of the axiom that sees the region hopelessly divided between Shiites and Sunnis. The corollary has it that the impending electoral victory of the Iraqi Shiites will greatly increase Iranian leverage in Iraq. The truth, as Reuel Gerecht so eloquently demonstrated in the Wall Street Journal last week, is precisely the opposite, because the Shiite leaders in Iraq are fundamentally opposed to the Iranian doctrine that places a theocratic dictator atop civil society. The Iraqis adhere to the traditional Shiite view that people in turbans should work in mosques, leaving civil society to secular leaders, and therefore their victory in Iraq will threaten the sway of the mullahs across the border. We should not view all Shiites as a coherent community, and we should welcome a traditional Shiite society in Iraq, and recognize that it is a valuable weapon in the war against the terror masters in Tehran.

The mullahs know this well. They dread the success of traditional Shiites in Baghdad, and they are desperately trying to foment a Sunni/Shiite clash of civilizations. That is the explanation of the resumption of suicide-bombing attacks in the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala, which the mullahs’ intelligence agents had terminated when previous bombings intensified anti-Iranian (rather than the hoped-for anti-Sunni) passions. As many Iraqi leaders have observed, the recent attacks in the holy places demonstrate desperation, not growing “insurgent” strength.

The clear strategic conclusion remains what it should have been long before Coalition troops entered Saddam’s evil domain: No matter how strongly we wish it to be otherwise, we are engaged in a regional war, of which Iraq is but a single battlefield. The war cannot be won in Iraq alone, because the enemy is based throughout the region and his bases and headquarters are located beyond our current reach. His power is directly proportional to our unwillingness to see the true nature of the war, and our decision to limit the scope of our campaign.

The true nature of the war exposes yet another current myth: that we are at greater risk because we failed to send sufficient troops into Iraq. More troops would simply mean more targets for the terrorists, since we are not prepared–nor should we be–to establish a full-scale military occupation and to “seal off” the borders with Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Hell, we can’t even seal off the Mexican border with the United States, an area we know well. How can we expect to build a wall around Iraq?

No, we can only win in Iraq if we fully engage in the terror war, which means using our most lethal weapon–freedom–against the terror masters, all of them. The peoples of Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are restive, they look to us for political support. Why have we not endorsed the call for political referenda in Syria and Iran? Why are we so (rightly and honorably) supportive of free elections in the Ukraine, while remaining silent about–or, in the disgraceful case of outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell, openly hostile to–free elections in Iran and Syria? Why are we not advancing both our values and our interests in the war against the terror masters?

Faster, please.

Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. He is resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.

Michael LedeenMichael Ledeen is an American historian, philosopher, foreign-policy analyst, and writer. He is a former consultant to the National Security Council, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense. ...


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