No Distraction
Why liberating Iraq is crucial to beating terrorism.

BY JAMES TARANTO, Thursday, March 6, 2003

(Editor's note: Mr. Taranto delivered this speech Tuesday to the Fabiani Society in New York.)

You're all no doubt familiar with President Bush's case for war, which I'll briefly summarize:

Now, I find all these arguments convincing. I would add one more. In 1991, after we drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait, then-President Bush urged Iraqis to rise up against Saddam Hussein. They did, and America abandoned them. Saddam's forces killed tens of thousands of people and made refugees out of tens of thousands more. I would argue that this betrayal leaves America with a moral obligation to free the Iraqi people.

Just about everyone agrees that America can liberate Iraq from Saddam's rule. So enormous is our military advantage that no one would be surprised if Baghdad fell in a matter of days.

Some argue, however, that it isn't a wise thing to do. I'd like to talk about what I see as three myths of the antiwar side.

Myth No. 1: America is "rushing to war."

People were saying this six months ago, when President Bush took his case to the United Nations. Since then, the president has done everything asked of him: He's won congressional authorization for military action; he's persuaded the U.N. Security Council to give Saddam a "final opportunity" to comply with his disarmament and other obligations, and he is even now pursuing yet another Security Council resolution explicitly authorizing force. A six-month diplomatic effort to win support is hardly a "rush" to war.

It's a myth, though, even to say that we're debating whether to go to war with Iraq. The truth is, we are at war with Iraq, and we have been for 12 years. There was no peace treaty ending the Gulf War. There was only a cease-fire, conditional on Iraq's accepting a series of conditions, embodied in, now, 17 U.N. resolutions, covering not just disarmament but also economic sanctions, repatriation of prisoners of war, reparations to Kuwait, and an end to the repression of the Iraqi civilian population.

As President Bush pointed out to the U.N. in September, Saddam has complied with none of these provisions. It should be clear by now that he will not. At most he will make desultory concessions aimed at giving countries like France that oppose action an excuse to stand in the way.

Those who favor maintaining the status quo of inspections and sanctions, aimed at "containing" Saddam, call themselves "antiwar." But in fact they are precisely the opposite. They favor prolonging a war that has already gone on for 12 years, and that has taken an enormous toll on the Iraqi people, who continue to suffer both tyranny and economic isolation.

The status quo is also dangerous to America, which brings me to Myth No. 2: Invading Iraq is a "diversion" from the war on al Qaeda.

Well, the notion that the U.S. government is "distracted" from al Qaeda now has a simple, three-word refutation: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

More broadly, though, the idea that finishing the Gulf War detracts from the terror war reminds me of the arguments we used to hear against quality-of-life policing. The objection went something like this: Why would you want cops to waste their time on "minor crimes" like panhandling, or subway fare-beating, or public urination? The police ought to be out catching murderers.

After the Giuliani years here in New York, it'd be hard to find anyone who doesn't acknowledge that public order prevents crime, and that public disorder, by creating an atmosphere of lawlessness and anarchy, encourages serious crime. This principle is no less applicable on the "Arab street" than on the streets of New York.

Terrorism does not occur in a vacuum; it is a product of the tyranny, misrule and fanaticism that prevail in much of the Arab and Muslim worlds. Saddam Hussein's continued defiance of the U.N.'s demands and its failure to do anything about it make a mockery of international law. What lesson can terrorists take from this but that this is a world without authority, a world in which the civilized nations will not act to protect themselves from those who would murder the innocent in the name of jihad?

Furthermore, the need to contain Saddam Hussein distorts American policy toward the entire region. Many critics of Washington's Iraq policy point out that al Qaeda actually has much closer ties to Saudi Arabia than to Iraq. This is undoubtedly true. Osama bin Laden is a Saudi native. Fifteen of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis. Riyadh exports the extremist Wahhabi brand of Islam throughout the world.

Yet Saudi Arabia is our ally. We even station troops on Saudi soil, to protect the Saudi royal family from Saddam Hussein. With Saddam gone, we'll be able to reassess our relationship with the Saudis and with other "friendly" dictatorships. The fewer enemies you have, the more selective you can afford to be about your friends.

But even if liberating Iraq promises to be an antiterror boon in the long run, some argue that there's a huge risk in the short term. This is Myth No. 3: Intervention in Iraq will lead to more terrorism.

Note the contradiction between Myth No. 2, which denies that Iraq has anything to do with terrorism, and Myth No. 3, which asserts that it has everything to do with terrorism.

There's actually a bit of plausibility to the fear of retaliatory terrorism--but only a bit. One can imagine al Qaeda timing an attack on America to coincide with the liberation of Iraq, and in fact Osama bin Laden, or a man purporting to be Osama bin Laden, hinted at such a thing in his last audiotape.

But if there are al Qaeda cells waiting to attack America, does anyone really think they'll pack up and go home once they're convinced we're going to leave Saddam alone? Of course not. Al Qaeda cannot be appeased. "Retaliation" for an attack on Iraq would be a pretext, not a provocation, for any al Qaeda attack--and let's remember that there was no particular pretext for the attacks of Sept. 11.

So at most, the threat of retaliatory terrorism might be an argument for delaying action in Iraq in the hope of buying more time to weaken al Qaeda. But this weekend's progress against al Qaeda makes that argument less compelling. Besides, the case for delay is a double-edged sword. If we wait to deal with Iraq until we've finished dealing with al Qaeda, we give Saddam a powerful interest in keeping bin Laden strong. If Iraq and al Qaeda don't already have a tactical alliance, this seems like a excellent way of driving them into each other's arms.

There's another way in which critics say the liberation of Iraq will encourage terrorism: It will inflame the "Arab street," whip up anti-Americanism and expand the number of potential terrorists.

This, it seems to me, misunderstands the Arab street entirely. What inflames the Arab street is not American strength but the perception of American weakness. Before the Gulf War, the Arab street protested fervidly in favor of Saddam. After the Gulf War, it was quiet. On Sept. 11, the Arab street whooped with delight at America's suffering. It was quiet after we liberated Afghanistan from the Taliban.

Recently I met an Iraqi-American woman who told me that whenever she travels to places like Egypt and Syria, people respond with great enthusiasm when she tells them she's originally from Iraq. "Oh," they'll say, "you have a wonderful president." They're referring to Saddam, not President Bush.

"Why is he wonderful?" she asks them. Having lived there, of course, she knows better.

The answer? "He's wonderful because he stands up to America."

As long as Saddam is in power, he remains a symbol of defiance against the feckless free world. He personifies the disorder that prevails throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds. This is what breeds terrorism. This is why liberating Iraq is a crucial part of the project America began on Sept. 11, 2001.

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