Politics & Policy


If you want to win the debate, win the war.

More than three years ago, prior to the liberation of Iraq, I lamented that our great national debate on the war against terrorism was the wrong debate, because it was “about using our irresistible military might against a single country in order to bring down its leader, when we should be talking about using all our political, moral, and military genius to support a vast democratic revolution to liberate the peoples of the Middle East from their tyrannical rulers. That is our real mission, the essence of the war in which we are engaged, and the proper subject of our national debate.”

The proper debate has still not been engaged, and the administration’s failure to lead it bespeaks a grave failure of strategic vision. The war was narrowly aimed against the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. But, as President Bush himself said after 9/11, it was logically and properly a war against both the terrorists themselves and against the regimes that foster, support, arm, train, indoctrinate, and guide the terrorist legions who are clamoring for our destruction.

Following the defeat of the Taliban, there were four such regimes: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia. They were the true terror masters, without whose active support the terrorist groups would have been unable to mount a global jihad. They had–and the surviving three still have–two common denominators: all actively support terrorism in one way or another, and all are tyrannies.

Contrary to much of today’s conventional wisdom, they did not all rest on religious fanaticism: Saddam had no religious standing, having come to power as a secular socialist, and the Assad family dictatorship has similar origins. They are not all Arabs: The Iranians (aside from a small minority in the south), would bridle at that misidentification. All share a common hatred for the Western world and unconcealed contempt for their own peoples, knowing full well that their oppressed citizens are a threat to their power and authority.

It is no accident that the terror masters work together, notwithstanding the oft-overstated differences between Arabs and Persians, and Sunnis and Shiites. The Syrians and Iranians worked hand-in-mailed-glove for years, supporting Hezbollah and other terror groups in occupied Lebanon. Nearly a decade before the overthrow of the shah of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fanatical Shiite Revolutionary Guards were trained in Lebanon by the Sunni terrorists of Yasser Arafat’s al Fatah. They are working together today, to kill Iraqis and Coalition soldiers.

The most dangerous, and paradoxically the most vulnerable, of the terror masters was, and likely still is, Iran. Most everyone agrees that Iran played a unique role in the terror war that has been waged against the United States for nearly a quarter-century. According to the State Department’s annual survey, Iran has long been the world’s leading sponsor of international terror. Both Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad are Iranian creations and clients, which is why Imad Mugniyah of Hezbollah and Aywan al Zawahiri of Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda keep showing up in Tehran, along with Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the leader of the jihad in Iraq who had operated out of Tehran for many years. Unsurprisingly, the 9/11 Commission found hard evidence of collusion between Iran and al-Qaeda, going back into the mid-nineties.

In 2002, I argued that our first move against the terror masters should be to give political and economic support to the Iranian people in their efforts to topple the mullahcracy. At that time, the streets of the country’s major cities were filled with demonstrators almost every week. Had the democratic opposition received the same kind of help we gave to Solidarity in Poland, the anti-Milosevic forces in Yugoslavia, and the anti-Marcos movement in the Philippines, the mullahs might have been brought down then and there, thus making the war against Saddam, the Assads, and the pro-terrorist elements of the Saudi Royal Family much easier, and greatly reducing the requirement for military power. A strategy of actively supporting democratic revolution throughout the region was precisely what President Bush proposed, and it made good historical sense: It was of a piece with the dramatic spread of freedom in recent decades, including the defeat of the Soviet Empire.

It was objected that such a revolutionary mission was far too ambitious, and that prudence required us to move carefully, one case at a time, all the while mending our diplomatic fences with friends, allies, and undecideds. But, as so often happens, the “prudent” strategy proved more dangerous. Moving step by step–first Iraq, then we’ll see–gave the surviving terror masters time to organize their counterattack before we liberated Iraq, and, as I predicted, the extra time was also used to develop the weapons of mass destruction that rightly concern us, and give urgency to our cause.

The long period of dawdling after the defeat of the Taliban, along with the failure of strategic vision that blinded us to the regional nature of the war, enabled the terror masters to develop a collective strategy, for which we were famously unprepared. Yet there was no excuse for us to be surprised, since, on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad announced publicly that a terror war would be unleashed against us inside Iraq. That terror war would be modeled on the successful campaign against American forces in Lebanon in the mid-eighties. And so it was, including the Syrian-Iranian (Sunni-Shiite) alliance, often using Saudi jihadi volunteers.

Like it or not, we are in a regional war, and it cannot be effectively prosecuted within a narrow national boundary. There will never be decent security in Iraq so long as the tyrants in Tehran and Damascus remain in power. They know that the spread of freedom is a terrible threat to them, and that if there were a successful democratic Iraq, their power and authority would be at risk. That is why they are waging an existential war against us in Iraq.

It is virtually impossible to read the daily press without finding at least some further evidence of the Syrians’ and the mullahs’ deep involvement in the terror war in Iraq, and the Iranians are up to their necks in Afghanistan as well. Several weeks ago Afghan President Hamid Karzai said that playing defense against the terrorists in his country wasn’t good enough. Karzai stressed that we need to take the fight to those foreign countries where the terrorists are trained, which certainly includes Iran. There is abundant information about joint Iranian/Syrian support for the terrorists in Iraq, even including photographs captured after the battle for Hilla last year, which showed terrorist leaders meeting in Syria with Iranian and Syrian military intelligence officials. This was confirmed to me by a translator who worked for U.S. special forces during and after the fighting, who also read documents with similar information in both Hilla and Fallujah.

Our most potent weapon against the terror masters is revolution, yet we are oddly feckless about supporting pro-democracy forces in either country. Nor is there any sign of support for the Iranian workers, who just last month staged a brief national strike. Workers need a strike fund to walk off the job and stay at home, a lesson mastered by Ayatollah Khomeini, who sent sacks of rice all over the country in the weeks leading up to massive strikes against the shah in 1979. The opposition groups need good communications tools, from cell and satellite phones to laptops and servers. It wouldn’t be very difficult to organize this sort of support; it wasn’t that hard in the eighties, when we did the same for Solidarity and other democratic forces in the Soviet Empire.

Alas, we have no policy to support regime change in Tehran or Damascus. Indeed, there is no policy at all, four long years after 9/11. A State Department official recently assured me that there were regular meetings on Iran, although there is still no consensus on what to do. Whether this is paralysis or appeasement is hard to say, but it is certainly no way to wage a war on terror.

If we were able to get past the basic strategic error–reflected in the national debate as in our conduct on the ground in Iraq–we might yet see that we hold the winning cards. Freedom has indeed spread throughout the region. Contrary to the confident predictions of many experts, many, perhaps most, Arabs and Muslims crave democracy, and are willing to take enormous risks to win it. Syria has received several devastating blows to its hegemony in Lebanon as the result of a popular uprising. The Egyptians and the Saudis have to at least pretend to hold free elections. The Iranian people are being beaten, tortured and killed as never before, but most every week there are large-scale demonstrations, reaching even to the oil-producing regions without which the mullahcracy would be brought to the verge of collapse. And there is an encouraging surge of pro-democracy enthusiasm in Syria itself. These people are the gravediggers of the old tyrannical order in the Middle East, and they deserve our help.

The main arguments against this policy are that the repressive regimes in Damascus and Tehran are firmly in control; that any meddling we do will backfire, driving potential democrats to the side of the regimes in a spasm of indignant nationalism; and that the democracy movements are poorly led, thus destined to fail. The people who are saying these things–in the universities, the State Department, National Security Council and the Intelligence Community–said much the same about our support for democratic revolution inside the Soviet Empire shortly before its collapse. They forgot Machiavelli’s lesson that tyranny is the most unstable form of government, and they forgot how much the world changes when the United States moves against its enemies. Most experts thought Ronald Reagan was out of his mind when he undertook to bring down the Soviet Empire, and hardly a man alive believed that democratic revolution could bring down dictators in Georgia, the Ukraine, and Serbia. All these dictatorships were overthrown by a small active proportion of the population; in Iran, according to the regime’s own public opinion polls, the overwhelming majority hate the mullahs. Why should it be more difficult to remove the Iranian Supreme Leader and the Syrian dictator than it was to send Mikhail Gorbachev into early retirement?

What is the alternative? If we do not engage, we will soon find ourselves facing a nuclear Iran that will surely be emboldened to increase its sponsorship of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Jamaah Islamiah, and Hamas, and will redouble its efforts to shatter Iraq’s fragile democratic experiment. Which is the more prudent policy? Cautiously defending Iraq alone, or supporting the revolutionaries against the terror masters? Active support of the democratic forces in the Middle East would be the right policy, even if there were no terror war, and even if Iran were not a shallow breath away from atomic weapons. It is what America is all about.

Faster, confound it.

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. ...


The Latest