Politics & Policy

It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

Don't call the enemy a victor. We're still fighting.

In his New Republic article “Way of Error: How Osama bin Laden Beat George W. Bush,” Peter Bergen writes this:

America’s most formidable foe–once practically dead– is back. This is one of the most historically significant legacies of President Bush. At nearly every turn, he has made the wrong strategic choices in battling al Qaeda. To understand the terror network’s resurgence–and its continued ability to harm us–we need to reexamine all the ways in which the administration has failed to crush it.

It’s interesting to juxtapose this emphatic claim with what we read in yesterday’s Washington Post:

The U.S. military believes it has dealt devastating and perhaps irreversible blows to al-Qaeda in Iraq in recent months, leading some generals to advocate a declaration of victory over the group, which the Bush administration has long described as the most lethal U.S. adversary in Iraq.

These two statements are not necessarily contradictory — but the Post story does, I think, underscore the danger of commentators who like to determine the “historically significant legacies of President Bush” before the administration has even run its course.

The reality is that al Qaeda planted its flag in Iraq and made it the great testing ground between America and militant Islam. In the words of bin Laden:

The most important and serious issue today for the whole world is this Third World War, which the Crusader-Zionist coalition began against the Islamic nation. It is raging in the land of the two rivers. The world’s millstone and pillar is in Baghdad, the capital of the caliphate.

And this:

The whole world is watching this war and the two adversaries; the Islamic nation, on the one hand, and the United States and its allies on the other. It is either victory and glory or misery and humiliation.

And this:

I would like to tell you that the war is for you and for us to win. If we win it, it means your defeat and disgrace forever as the wind blows in this direction with God’s help.

And this:

This is a war of destiny between infidelity and Islam.

These, then, are the stakes, as defined by bin Laden. That is why it is so significant that AQI has been absorbing such enormous blows. We’re making tremendous gains against AQI which means, in turn, we’re making great progress against al Qaeda central.

This doesn’t mean AQI has been defeated, or that is doesn’t pose a threat, or that it can’t come back. Nor does it mean that all of al Qaeda’s hopes are tied up in Iraq. It can fail there but make gains elsewhere. Yet consider this scenario, which is now plausible: Osama bin Laden declared the United States — in the aftermath of the Vietnam retreat in the 1970s, the Beirut retreat in the 1980s, and the Somali retreat in the 1990s — to be a “weak horse” that could not absorb punishment without fleeing. We were viewed by jihadists as soft, cosseted, and with contempt.

In the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), bin Laden decided to make Iraq the central battleground in his jihadists campaign. And al Qaeda then finds out that America, after being bloodied in a war that is much more difficult and costly than we expected, stays in the fight. Events begin to shift. Rather than fleeing, the United States alters it military strategy, renews its commitment, and deals al Qaeda a “devastating and perhaps irreversible blow” in Iraq. Having been knocked back on our heels, the United States ends up smashing AQI in a test of wills.

It’s important to stress we aren’t there yet. This war has a long way to go, and many more scenes to play out. We could defeat AQI and sectarian violence in Iraq could still reach unacceptably high levels.

But the fact is that it is far too early (and a tad unseemly) to declare bin Laden the victor of George W. Bush and that the “war in Iraq that gave new life to Al Qaeda” has been decided. If Mr. Bergen had been writing in the summer of 1864, he might easily have said the same thing about Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, and General Robert E. Lee in their epic struggle against Lincoln and Grant. And that, too, would have been wrong.

It ain’t over till it’s over — and the war in Iraq and against jihadism still ain’t over. It turns out the president and his nation, while weary of the war, have more reserves than bin Laden thought. And bin Laden and his band of jackals may still end up paying a mighty high price for their miscalculations.

– Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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