By Freedom Newspapers
One can understand a certain desperation. Public opinion has turned solidly against continuing the war in Iraq any longer than absolutely necessary, but out of stubbornness or conviction President Bush opposes withdrawal, and military planners talk of maintaining a substantial military presence for at least another two years.
So knowing that even Americans who oppose the war in Iraq understand that there is a pervasive threat from al-Qaida and other jihadist groups that must be countered in various ways, and that Osama bin Laden is still unpopular, in his speech last week at Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina, Bush sought to link the war in Iraq to the larger struggle against Islamist terrorism. In the process, however, he made some seriously misleading comments.
At least he didn’t make the bald — and false — assertion he made last month — that “(t)he same folks that are bombing innocent people in Iraq were the ones who attacked us in America on Sept. 11.” As he acknowledged last week, al-Qaida in Iraq was not founded until after the U.S. invaded that country, sometime in 2004, and it could not claim to be affiliated with al-Qaida’s central leadership until 2005. So there’s no question that while al-Qaida in Iraq consists of ruthless and cruel people who wish America ill, they are not the same people who pulled off the 9/11 attacks.
What the president stressed late last month were ties between al-Qaida in Iraq and Osama bin Laden, making the case that they were all part of a global terrorist network and that failure to defeat them in Iraq would have grave consequences. In doing so, however, he was basically knocking down straw men of his own making.
Critics of the war, he said, “claim that the organization called al-Qaida in Iraq is an Iraqi phenomenon, that it’s independent of Osama bin Laden and that it’s not interested in attacking America.” We’ve never heard a war critic make such a bald claim. Most war critics have stressed, as we have, that al-Qaida didn’t exist until the U.S. invaded Iraq, and thus whatever threat it poses — including its later affiliation with the larger global al-Qaida network — is an artifact of the U.S. decision to invade a country that posed no imminent threat.
President Bush asserts, without offering strong evidence, that if the U.S. leaves Iraq too soon, al-Qaida in Iraq will have the kind of safe haven Osama bin Laden had for many years in Afghanistan. That ignores the fact that al-Qaida Iraq is responsible for only about 5 percent of the insurgent fighters in Iraq. Whatever government emerges after the U.S. leaves — and it is possible that a period of intense violence will ensue before that happens — is unlikely to welcome AQI as the Taliban regime harbored bin Laden in the 1990s. It is more likely to suppress the organization in ways that many Americans might find shocking.
The only argument for staying much longer in Iraq that has a shred of intellectual respectability is that the U.S. attack and mismanagement of the occupation unleashed such dangerous and violent forces that we have a moral responsibility to try to calm things down to a stable situation before we leave. If stay-the-course advocates want to make that case, we’ll be happy to discuss whether moral responsibility is infinite or whether it can be discharged by doing one’s best while recognizing that the U.S. has a limited capacity to fix other countries.
Stretching the facts about al-Qaida in Iraq doesn’t make the case.