- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 11, 2007

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Today marks the sixth anniversary of al Qaeda’s attack on America. In the aftermath of September 11, as the country was shocked and New York and Washington were sifting through the rubble, President Bush promised the nation that “[t]he people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” Unfortunately, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden continues to be heard in many ways as well. Analysts agree that bin Laden’s latest taped message, the first after three silent years, is less significant for its content than for its timing. Bin Laden continues to pop up to inflame people’s exasperation with the war by talking about how events in Iraq have gotten “out of control.” “[T]he innocence of yours is like my innocence of the blood of your sons on the 11th — were I to claim to such a thing,” he said.

I have visited the Middle East many times over the last few years, and while I’ve never heard anyone praise Mr. Bush’s policies, I have heard a variety of people affirm the thinking of the world’s most wanted man. The depressed environment of the region — high unemployment, displaced populations, centuries-old hatreds and violence — is a natural breeding ground for recruiting radical Islamists. Muslim nations are united against any criticism of their faith, but so far they have been wholly ineffective in presenting a united front against radicals committing violence in the name of Islam. And their lack of cooperation in Iraq is killing more Muslims. Hussain Al Sha’ali, the United Arab Emirates’ minister of state for foreign affairs, told me during a recent visit that if Muslim nations were to cooperate more effectively in Iraq, “we don’t know whose interests we will be protecting — Americans or Iraqis.”

That raises a question about the nature of the war in Iraq. The significant Muslim regional players like Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey are convinced that the era of American hegemony is coming to an end. They are judging their next moves based on the presumption that the Iraq war is lost. In fact, the same presumption will be the same for many European nations as well as Russia and China.

Therefore, the debate over withdrawal from Iraq constitutes a bigger power struggle. And neither decision — either staying or leaving — has a claim to be absolutely right. However, Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, is correct when he says “[t]he only thing I can be absolutely certain of is that if we decide we are tired of this and don’t want to sustain our engagement, then I can be absolutely certain that Iraq will fail.” If that happens, “Iran is ready to fill the vacuum of Iraq,” he said. The question is whether America is ready to accept such a defeat.

No one doubts that the civil war will escalate and a regional conflict could play out in Iraq if the United States withdraws completely. “Americans are moral people,” said Mr. Crocker. “You’ve seen how we react to scenes in Rwanda or scenes in the Balkans. What could happen in Iraq could be on an even larger scale. And I think we’ve got an imperative to do everything we can, as long as the potential is there to bring this country to a better outcome.”

The congressional testimony of Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, and Mr. Crocker should serve as an opportunity to reexamine the strategy on the ground, rather than as an excuse to find a quick exit. Everyone is aware of the dangers of a full withdrawal — in fact, none of the leading Democratic presidential candidates even discuss it. What’s more, Mr. Bush will consider withdrawing some troops based on Gen. Petraeus’s recommendations.

Given the circumstances in Iraq, it’s hard not to question whether invading was the right way for America to ensure its security after September 11. But complaining doesn’t solve the problem; even criticizing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is irrelevant. The invasion and occupation have been far from perfect. But there is reason to be hopeful, and if America continues to believe in its institutions, it is too early to declare the war lost.

The chief failings of Iraq war planning — intelligence and the Iraqi expatriots — could end up making things right. The U.S. intelligence community made mistakes, and there is greatly divergent opinion over what Mr. Bush really knew about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. But there is no reason to think that the intelligence community isn’t doing a better job. After all, they have full access to the Iraqi theater today. The United States went into Iraq with a terrible plan. But hopefully, the recent reports and congressional hearings will produce more effective solutions and a strategy to establish security on the ground.

Tulin Daloglu is a freelance writer.

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