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The Right Fight

By Jacob Laksin | May 28, 2007

Few today are receptive to the idea of a “war on terror.” From a war-weary public, to a political commentariat impatient with such supposedly simple-minded slogans, the country seems determined to move beyond the notion that the fighting underway in Iraq is in any significant way connected to the global terrorist threat to national security. So it is to President Bush’s credit that he used his commencement address at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy this week to reacquaint a disaffected nation with a stubborn fact: Iraq remains the central theater in the fight against al-Qaeda and its jihadist brethren.

To illustrate the point, Bush adduced newly declassified intelligence that confirms what many are disinclined to hear: that al-Qaeda views Iraq as the ultimate showdown between its brand of fanatical Islam and the Western world, and that it seeks to turn the country into a staging ground for further attacks against the United States.

By way of example, Bush pointed to a 2005 plot, apparently hatched by Osama bin Laden himself, to coordinate attacks against the U.S. with al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq. According to details presented by the president, bin Laden instructed an intermediary, Hamza Rabi, to relay plans for such attacks to al-Qaeda’s then-senior leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi. “Our intelligence community reports that a senior al-Qaeda leader, Abu Faraj al-Libi, went further and suggested that bin Laden actually send Rabia, himself, to Iraq to help plan external operations,” Bush explained. “Abu Faraj later speculated that if this effort proved successful, al-Qaeda might one day prepare the majority of its external operations from Iraq.” Reflecting on the import of these findings, Bush sensibly concluded that “war on terror” remained a useful concept: “This notion about how this isn’t a war on terror, in my view, is naïve,” he said. “It doesn’t reflect the true nature of the world in which we live.”

Where the president erred is in assuming that his critics — especially among the Democratic Party’s leadership — actually live in the same world. In reality, at the level of foreign policy, Democrats and their allies on the anti-war Left have long inhabited an alternate universe.

Capitol Hill this week embodied that political disconnect. Going into full bullying mode, Congressional Democrats repeatedly threatened to block war funding unless the appropriations bill for the war also included timelines for withdrawal — a clear encroachment on the executive’s war-making powers. Finally they agreed, grudgingly, to fund the troops. Detracting from the solemnity of the Democratic opposition, however, is the fact that legislators nonetheless managed to muscle billions of dollars in earmarks into the $120-billion legislation.

For the anti-war base, even reluctant support for the war effort is apostasy punishable by political death. Far-left activist network has already demanded that “every single Democrat must oppose this bill.” The marching orders are clear: Vote for defeat in Iraq, or face it at home. Accordingly, MoveOn has vowed to mount primary challenges to any Democrat who dares to show independence on Iraq.

It will please these ideological enforcers to know that no such independence is to be found within the current field of Democratic presidential hopefuls. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the latter reportedly the most hawkish of the contenders, supported a symbolic measure to cut all funding for the war by next spring. (It was unclear, as of this writing, whether the Senators would vote for this week’s funding bill.)

Among candidates in serious contention, John Edwards has staked out the hardest anti-war line. In laying out his foreign policy vision before the Council on Foreign Relations this week, the onetime vice presidential aspirant assailed the notion of a war on terror as one of President Bush‘s “discredited ideological pursuits.” Unveiling his own plan for combating terrorism, Edwards called for a new humility, and proposed “to educate every child in the world.” How that mission could be reconciled with his call for humility in foreign affairs, and why an education campaign would stop the next generation of al-Qaeda recruits — who, as it happens, are uniformly well-educated — were among the many questions Edwards left unanswered.

Far from the demagoguery of the presidential campaign, the hard work of actually fighting terrorism falls to the U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies. Although violence — in the form of suicide attacks, car bombings, and gangland-style murders — remains a constant, the “surge” of American troop strength begun in February is showing modest signs of success. For one thing, sectarian violence appears to be in decline, especially in Baghdad. For another, Iraqis, including in Sunni Arab strongholds like Anbar province, are joining the fight against al-Qaeda terrorists.

Moreover, and contrary to the popular refrain that Iraq is a “distraction” from the true fight against terrorism, al-Qaeda has in recent years suffered serious defeats. Consider that of the operatives that bin Laden hoped to involve in his plot to attack the United States, al-Libi was captured and is now out of commission in much-maligned Guantanamo Bay; al-Rabia was killed in 2005 in Pakistan; and al-Zarqawi met his unlamented end in a June 2006 strike by the U.S. military in Diyala province. For a distraction from al-Qaeda, Iraq is proving to be remarkably on-target.

Not that you will hear this from the war’s critics. To acknowledge success would require them to concede that Iraq is in fact the frontline in the global war on terror — and, furthermore, that the war is not a White House scheme to scare American voters. In short, it would require an admission that, on the question of Iraq’s centrality to the war against al-Qaeda, President Bush is right.

Iraqis are more forthright. Lt. Gen. Aboud Qanbar, the Iraqi commander overseeing the security plan, told the Washington Post this week that while sectarian violence is the leading problem in the country, it cannot be understood apart from al-Qaeda‘s involvement. Observing that al-Qaeda often incites the violence that draws reprisals from sectarian Shiite militias, he said: “Terrorists of al-Qaeda and the enemies of Iraq, they want to start a crisis. The objective behind this is to incite sectarian strife.” Coming just ahead of Memorial Day, it was a fitting reminder that the sacrifices of American forces in Iraq have not been in vain. Just don’t tell Congress.

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