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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

November 2005

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FACING THE ISLAMIST CHALLENGE

Some opponents of Anglo-American military intervention in Iraq have long defended their stance by proclaiming: "Peace is Patriotic." As a guide to foreign policy that assertion makes no more sense than: "War is the Answer." An understandable choice between war and peace avoids shallow slogans and rests on informed examination of threats and how they are best countered.

In a better ordered world, several things would have justified Saddam Hussein's overthrow: mass murders of his own citizens; brutal torture of his perceived opponents; 12 years' defiance of U.N. resolutions; daily attacks on the American and British aircraft preventing further slaughter of Kurds and Shiites. Whatever the conventional wisdom on the matter, neither the fear that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction nor the charge that "Bush lied" guide us to a proper understanding of a sound Mideast policy.

What is the threat? Some of Iraq's insurgents are former Baathists. They hope through violence to overcome Iraq's emerging popular government, prevent its economic advance and return its Sunni minority to absolute power. As demonstrated by the recent referendum on Iraq's new constitution, Sunni leaders are increasingly accepting the demise of Sunni autocracy and the usefulness of politics as a means to promote their interests in harmony with Kurds and Shia.

Our most dangerous enemies in Iraq, the ones led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, are part of a larger movement with unlimited goals. Often called Islamists—to distinguish them from moderate Muslims—they trace their intellectual roots to Salafist and Wahhabi determination to end Islam's present humiliating estate: the poverty, tyranny and alienation of most Arabs. The Islamists aim to revive Islamic civilization by creating a regional theocratic caliphate that would return Mideast social relations, Taliban-style, to the seventh century.

Even while groups within what became the movement debated strategy and tactics, Islamists began laying the groundwork for their ultimate triumph. Throughout Asia and even the West, Saudi millions built and staffed Wahhabi madrassas and mosques to indoctrinate recruits in the "true" faith.

For a quarter century the groups also sought publicity and recruits by testing our resolve with attacks on our embassies (five since 1979), assassinating our diplomats, blowing up U.S. military barracks (Lebanon and Saudi Arabia), striking the USS Cole and spectacular bombings within the United States. Nor have other nations resisting terrorism been spared.

As the movement coalesced around al Qaeda, its strategist, Ayman al-Zawahiri, identified four tasks: Overthrow the "near enemy"—the apostate autocrats governing all Arab states—and subjugate their peoples within a regional caliphate under "faithful" leadership. When unified, and strengthened by control of Mideast oil, resume Islam's seventh-century campaign to rule the planet. Each of those three tasks requires intimidating and ultimately overcoming the "far enemy"-the United States and other Western nations supporting current Arab leaders.

Surveying the Mideast in early 2001, the Bush administration recognized that the region's corrupt, authoritarian regimes required reform and modernization, else the Islamists would surely succeed. Only through reform could Islam achieve the social and economic progress that would end the deprivation and alienation that make Islamism attractive to the marginalized.

Responding to 9/11, the United States briefly set aside its Mideast goals and undertook to remove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, destroy al Qaeda's secure training base and begin the process of creating there a popular government respectful of civil rights and liberties.

Because of Iraq's central location in the Mideast, the country's better educated and more secular population and the nature of Saddam Hussein's government, the Bush administration regarded Iraq as the best place from which to begin the decades-long task of reforming the Mideast, relieving its poverty, giving its citizens a voice in their governments and providing an outlet to their frustrations other than returning the region to the seventh century and posing a threat to the rest of the world.

To "Give Peace a Chance" by abandoning Iraq would not only squander the good beginning made there but likely render that nation an even better Islamist training base than Afghanistan. Other Arab peoples, like the Lebanese, who have already made a bold start in the reformation of their societies, would surely loose hope. The tottering dictatorship in Syria would recover and Islamist belief in American cowardice would be reinforced.

Should the war's present opponents, at some future date, discover the courage to resist the Islamist challenge, they would face a strengthened enemy. That is neither sound strategy nor intelligent patriotism.

This essay first appeared in the (Raleigh) News & Observer on 17 November 2005.


The author of four books on military history, retired Colonel James L. Abrahamson is presently a director on American Diplomacy's Board.

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