- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Suddenly, the heretofore unthinkable seems not so impossible. Domestic political considerations driven by declining polls and negative reporting have prompted the Bush administration to take a series of dubious tactical decisions in Iraq. These have, in turn, contributed to a worsening situation on the ground there, featuring continuing physical insecurity, political turmoil and demoralization of U.S. forces. Amplified by relentlessly unfavorable press accounts and increasingly shrill Democratic criticism, these developments have given rise to still more dubious tactical decisions, an emboldened opposition on the ground and more bad news to report.

This dynamic has produced in the midst of this election year a sense in some quarters that an early U.S. exit may not only be inevitable but desirable. After all, a growing number of Americans seem to be under the illusion that, as with Vietnam, we can end the war simply by bailing out of Iraq.

If only fences are mended with the United Nations, they have been encouraged to believe, the world will once again leave us alone. At the very least, we could then go back to fighting international terror as more or less a police action.

Three developments of the past few days, however, make clear that we live in a very different sort of world — one that will become infinitely more dangerous for the United States if it is perceived to have “lost” Iraq:

c Last week’s murder and hostage-taking of indigenous and foreign workers in Saudi Arabia’s oil sector was a strategic attack not only on the kingdom but on the world economy. It underscores the fragility of what is currently the only rapidly expandable source of the crude which if taken off-line would precipitate an immediate end to any recovery, and probably serious and lasting economic dislocation.

Even before this attack, perceptions that disruptions may be in the offing at the hands of al Qaeda or other terrorists — possibly involving the destruction of key parts of the Saudi fields’ infrastructure — had contributed to soaring prices on the spot market and at gas pumps.

c The other main driver in petroleum-related price rises of late is the emergence on world oil markets of growing demand from China. Most analysts believe the only way Beijing can maintain the sorts of economic growth and rising living standards essential to the Communist Party’s continued hold on power is for vastly greater imports of energy from the international oil patch. In the absence of massive new finds of oil, technological or other impetuses for reduced U.S. and Western demand, the Chinese competition will not only further increase the cost of a barrel of oil. It may also contribute to the sort of mentality that political scientists call a “zero-sum” game — where one side can only benefit at the other’s expense, a mindset that, when it comes to vital and scarce natural resources, frequently leads to conflict and war.

Unfortunately, the Associated Press reported on May 30 that a new Defense Department report perceives an ominous Chinese interest in waging war swiftly and decisively against the United States. For some years, party and military leaders have used a term that translates into English roughly as “Assassin’s Mace.” The wire service quotes the Pentagon analysis as saying this “concept appears to include a range of weapon systems and technologies related to information warfare, ballistic and antiship cruise missiles, advanced fighters and submarines, counterspace system and air defense.”

There is reason to fear that the Chinese believe some such capabilities could be successfully employed, possibly in the relatively near term, to attack Taiwan and assert Chinese hegemony in East Asia, with little warning while the U.S. is tied down elsewhere.

c One of the things that could tie the United States down considerably would be the emergence of a terrorist Fifth Column here at home. As columnist Michelle Malkin has noted, a new study done at the request of Sens. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, and Chuck Schumer, New York Democrat, by the Justice Department’s inspector general has confirmed earlier, frightening press reports: U.S. and state prison systems have been penetrated for years by proselytizers for the radical subset of the Muslim faith known as Islamism — notably, the virulently intolerant, jihadist strain associated with Saudi Arabia’s state-sanctioned Wahhabi cult.

Incredibly, neither their interactions with prisoners nor even those of incarcerated Islamist terrorists have been adequately supervised out of what the I.G. deemed to be misplaced concern about “privacy rights” and “religious freedom.” Worse still, released felons are but one source, if a particularly dangerous one, for attacks in this country by al Qaeda sympathizers that have been cultivated over the past three decades by institutions tied to Saudi Arabia.

Taken together, these developments confirm that a withdrawal from and loss of Iraq will hardly be the end of our travails. If anything, the attendant perception of diminished U.S. power and loss of will would exacerbate the threats we face in the years ahead from terrorists, their state sponsors and others who would exploit the damage that might be inflicted by America’s enemies on the West’s oil supply, in East Asia and here at home.

These dangers will not be eliminated by success in Iraq, but they will be made more manageable as Iraqi oil comes on line, U.S. forces are freed up for duty elsewhere and Islamism is dealt a strategic defeat. This is, as Margaret Thatcher famously put it, “no time to go wobbly.”

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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