The President was on television last night, selling the Iraq war.**

As he has often in the so-called “war on terror,” the President relied upon fear appeals:

Failure in Iraq would be a disaster for the United States.

The consequences of failure are clear: Radical Islamic extremists would grow in strength and gain new recruits. They would be in a better position to topple moderate governments, create chaos in the region, and use oil revenues to fund their ambitions. Iran would be emboldened in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Our enemies would have a safe haven from which to plan and launch attacks on the American people. On September the 11th, 2001, we saw what a refuge for extremists on the other side of the world could bring to the streets of our own cities. For the safety of our people, America must succeed in Iraq.

Later, the President added this bit of Wilsonian rhetoric:

The challenge playing out across the broader Middle East is more than a military conflict. It is the decisive ideological struggle of our time. On one side are those who believe in freedom and moderation. On the other side are extremists who kill the innocent, and have declared their intention to destroy our way of life.

I’m not sure Americans should accept any of those points.

Let’s sort them out.

Radical Islamic extremists would grow in strength and gain new recruits.

American intelligence agencies report that the war itself is sparking the growth of Islamic extremists and providing new recruits.

Former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer argues that the jihadi movement has been built around opposition to America’s international behavior — especially its unqualified support for Israel and Arab monarchies and police states.

If the US did something to reduce perceived threats to Muslim interests, logically, shouldn’t that deflate the radicals’ ability to attract fanatics?

When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, that resolved the Islamist grievances against Moscow — at least until Chechnya sparked a completely different round.

I am well aware the Osama bin Laden claims that the mujahadeen toppled the Soviet empire, but his actual recruiting has depended upon anti-Americanism — not gloating.

Bush again:

They would be in a better position to topple moderate governments, create chaos in the region, and use oil revenues to fund their ambitions.

This contains so many assumptions that it borders on the ridiculous. If the US leaves Iraq abruptly, the most likely eventual consequence is Shia dominance of Iraq, probably after a prolonged civil war. Those Shia will not be in league with al Qaeda, a Sunni operation through-and-through.

If Sunni forces retain control of Anbar province even through a civil war, what would be their ambition — other than efforts to survive and control Iraq? The “moderate” governments in the region could overtly take their side in the Iraq civil war, so the extremists might have some oil revenues at their disposal. However, I am confident that this is NOT what Bush is implying. In any case, the Sunnis would have little incentive for trying to topple the Saudi monarchy given they would probably want their support.

And, of course, even if the radical extremists gained control of oil revenues, it would be quite easy to send some US cruise missiles at oil wells, pipelines and tankers. The US could prevent that problem without any American ground troops in Iraq.

Maybe this is simply Bush’s way of saying that US withdrawal will not prevent Iraqi civil war. The problem is that US presence is not stopping Iraqi civil war — and may be making it more violent, since the US forces are the most heavily armed.

Bush:

Iran would be emboldened in its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Um, why?

If Iran seeks nuclear weapons, it is primarily because Tehran wants to deter American military action. With American forces fighting within states on two of its borders, Iran has had a great incentive to prevent a “regime change” war launched by the US. If anything, American withdrawal should decrease Iran’s security incentives for wanting nuclear weapons — unless the US made noises that it was leaving Iraq in order to have forces to attack Iran.

That, of course, would be a completely different issue.

Another problem: Israel has nuclear weapons and fairly openly threatens Iran. Thus, regardless of what the US does in Iraq, Iran may decide that it needs a nuclear deterrent. Would a likely Israeli-Iranian stalemate be more dangerous than other nuclear rivalries? Personally, I worry more about India-Pakistan, but many scholars say that I have nothing to fear.

It is possible that American withdrawal would tempt Iran to try to play a larger role in the region, but it is not at all clear how nuclear weapons would help them accomplish that goal. OK, maybe nuclear weapons provide a country with a higher profile in world politics.

Nonetheless, it is very different to claim that defeat would embolden Iran to pursue nuclear weapons than it would be to say that defeat would embolden Iran to take offensive risks in its foreign policy that would genuinely threaten American security interests.

Bush, once again:

Our enemies would have a safe haven from which to plan and launch attacks on the American people. On September the 11th, 2001, we saw what a refuge for extremists on the other side of the world could bring to the streets of our own cities. For the safety of our people, America must succeed in Iraq.

Simply ridiculous. Even if the Sunni and al Qaedi extremists gained control of much of the Anbar province, that is a far cry from creating a safe haven to launch attacks against the US. As I wrote above, their immediate concern is going to be survival against the Shia militias.

Presumably, a post-civil war Shia government in Iraq would be willing to work with the US to destroy any Sunni/al Qaeda training camps created in Anbar. From 9/11 until the January 2002 “axis of evil” speech, Iran was cooperating with the US against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Plus, that cruise missile option will still be available.

Most serious critics of the Iraq war consider it a tremendous drain on American resources. Give up that fight and the US suddenly has all sorts of new resources available to redouble efforts in Afghanistan, which is apparently still an important node in the al Qaeda network, improve border security, promote expensive airplane safety measures if desirable, save for post-civil war reconstruction in Iraq, etc. Literally hundreds of billions of dollars would be available in the next few years that will otherwise be spent fighting in Iraq.

Bush, one last time:

The challenge playing out across the broader Middle East is more than a military conflict. It is the decisive ideological struggle of our time. On one side are those who believe in freedom and moderation. On the other side are extremists who kill the innocent, and have declared their intention to destroy our way of life.

Michael Scheuer estimated a few years ago that al Qaeda had trained tens of thousands of jihadists in guerrilla warfare. Many have been killed in Afghanistan, or captured elsewhere. Most were simply real or potential insurgents, trained to fight in places like the Kashmir or contemporary Iraq.

These guerillas pose little direct or immediate risk to the American homeland and were not trained to be al Qaeda’s elite potential sleeper terrorists. Those terrorists are many, many fewer in number and their threat to the west has little to do with the day-to-day violence in Iraq.

It is absurd to talk about radical Islam in the same way that cold warriors used to talk about the Soviet state. The Soviets controlled an enormous land mass with vast natural resources. They deployed millions of heavily armed troops on the borders of many western states. The Soviets tested a nuclear bomb in 1949 and had tens of thousands of them by the 1970s. Hundreds of millions of people acquiesced to Soviet rule and had a decent standard of living to keep them moderately satisfied.

Should a superpower’s attentions really be centered upon the aspirations of a few thousand people who hate its international behavior — but have few real material assets?

Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense for that superpower to modify its most provocative behavior, work hard on public diplomacy and try to convince the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims that America does not threaten their way of life or interests? Radical Islam will never succeed if the west is even moderately vigilant against their militarized agenda — so long as the balance of Muslim peoples do not join their cause.

The US needs to think hard about how to do that. It sounds like a cliché, but it is incredibly important to win “the hearts and minds” of Muslim peoples around the world. They may be physically quite remote from the Iraq conflict, but they nonetheless see its worst excesses on television every day.

Worldwide polling data suggests that the overwhelming majority of the world’s non-violent Muslims do not favor American escalation of the war in Iraq. Thus, the Bush administration has just announced a new plan for Iraq likely to undermine its goals in the broader war on terror.

** Personally, I watched the Kansas basketball game and caught only bits of the President’s speech during commercial breaks. Later, CNN ran a rebroadcast and I tried to watch it. Ultimately, I just read it on-line.

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