TCS Daily

The Central Front

By Michael Brandon McClellan - June 30, 2004 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This is the final installment of a three-part series arguing that neoconservatism best defends America. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.

Uniquely, democratic realism recognizes that in the present era of Islamic terror, security is only attainable through engagement, and that engagement will only have meaningful long term benefits if followed by committed democratic construction. In contrast, a policy of containment -- one that focuses on either multilateral diplomatic discussions or a realist playing of one hostile interest against another -- works to merely reinforce the status quo that breeds Jihadist killers. Only democracy and the rule of law can permanently alter the Middle East's volatile status quo, and extinguish the flames of violent radicalism in the Arab world. This is the great truth of the neo-conservative paradigm.

Large wars are often fought on many fronts, and the War on Terror is no exception. But most, if not all wars, have their central front. In the American Civil War, such was northern Virginia. While battles on the Mississippi and in Tennessee were important, the war was to be won or lost in the East. If General Lee took Philadelphia and Washington, DC, the war could end. Similarly, the Confederacy could not afford to lose Richmond, and the Army of Northern Virginia. In World War I, while fighting took place in Africa, in the Middle East, and in Eastern Europe, the war was to be won or lost on the Western Front. Paris could not fall, nor could Berlin. In World War II, the most global conventional war ever fought, Europe still remained the central front. Once Berlin fell, there was no question that the combined Allied might of the USA, the UK, and the USSR would crush the forces of Imperial Japan.

In the War on Terror, the central front is the Middle East. It is there from which the radical Jihadists derive, draw their manpower, and maintain their strongest roots. It is from the Middle East that Wahhabism is exported. It is accordingly the Middle East that must be engaged. The status quo that has allowed the Jihadists to thrive must be altered, and it must be altered in a permanent fashion.

The existence of a central front does not mean that all other fronts must be ignored. In World War II, the Allies could not ignore Japanese actions in the Pacific or Rommel's conquests in North Africa. But the fact remained that Europe was the strategic key. In the War on Terror, myriad fronts must be tended to. Russian and Pakistani nuclear weapons must be comprehensively secured. Al Qaeda cells must be relentlessly pursued across the globe. For now, North Korea must be contained and prevented from forging ties with the Jihadists. But such measures are preventative and defensive. They do not address the core problem of the Middle Eastern status quo. The American central offensive must be directed at the Middle East.

Iraq is accordingly vital. It is the strategic centerpiece because of its geographical location, and because of the enemies facing US troops within its borders. Nick Berg had his head sawed off by one of Osama Bin Laden's most ruthless lieutenants in Iraq. Berg's murderer, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is not an upstart insurgent, but a hard-core al Qaedist. Americans must stop bickering over senseless minutae and realize that the enemy we face in Iraq is now the enemy who struck us on September 11, regardless of whether Hussein and Bin Laden ever spoke on the phone or had a fireside chat.

It is true, as even Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz has conceded, that America invaded Iraq with several false optimistic assumptions. But false optimistic assumptions have always been, and will continue to remain, part of the "fog of war" or as the definitive military theorist Carl von Clausewitz called it, unforeseeable "friction." Certain elements of the Iraqi population have indeed proved less embracing than policy-makers initially imagined. Deposing Hussein has not made Iraq a less radical place but a magnet for radicals of all kinds. It is true that Hussein repressed radical Islamists within his borders. It is also true that Baathist Iraq was relatively "stable". But such was the stability of slavery.

Such observations do not address the fact that nothing short of regime change could stop Hussein from choosing to ally himself with al Qaeda. Over the years, he had shown himself quite willing to attack the United States military, and bankroll terrorist activity in Israel. He had also shown himself quite willing to use weapons of mass destruction. He was consistently less than forthcoming about his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction or lack thereof. He was a threat. In the context of the War on Terror, his strategic location in the heart of the Middle East, and history of aggressive action mandated his removal -- if not in March of 2003, then perhaps March of 2004, or the next March, or the one after that. Such was a liability that the Bush administration could not tolerate.

When historically left alone, Hussein had exhibited both a desire and a capacity to develop weapons of mass destruction. When challenged, he exhibited a willingness to use them, both against intra-state dissidents and inter-state rivals, namely the Kurds and the Iranians. Furthermore, after the 1991 Gulf War he consistently failed to comply with UN Security Council mandated weapons inspections, even in the face of economic sanctions and threats of military action. After the 9/11 attacks, where terrorists armed with box-cutters managed to strike at two of the most important US targets, kill 3,000 civilians, and cause possibly trillions of dollars of damage to the global economy, US policy-makers fully recognized the potential devastation inherent in the terrorist-WMD nexus. Had the planes been laden with WMD of any kind, the devastation would have been exponentially and horrifically worse.

Thus, in the eyes of key US policy-makers, September 11th transformed Hussein's Iraq from a regional menace into a global danger. A potential alliance between a WMD-distributing Hussein and suicidal Jihadists represented in many ways, the "sum of all fears" for US national security elites. The top-echelons of the Bush administration including the President, Vice-President, National Security Advisor, and Secretary of Defense viewed Baathist Iraq as an unacceptable threat.

While nearly every 9/11 terrorist hailed from Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government was at the time and still is working with the US in pursuit of al Qaeda terrorists. It was Saudi security forces that gunned down American Paul Johnson's al Qaedist executioners. Indeed Bin Laden has repeatedly and overtly proclaimed his hatred of the Saudi regime, and his desire to eradicate it. While historically negligent, even reckless, the Saudi regime poses little threat of arming al Qaedists. Doing so would be arming its enemies. The House of Saud maintains particularly strong diplomatic ties with the United States and is an important economic partner.

In contrast, Hussein's Iraq was an overt and committed enemy of the United States. For more than a decade since the 1991 Gulf War, in which the US was forced to repel Hussein's forces from neighboring Kuwait, Hussein was contained and held at bay by the policing of "no-fly" zones over two-thirds of his country. Literally thousands of times, his forces had fired on US and British aircraft and those aircraft had returned fire with no deterrent effect. Hussein publicly professed his hatred of the United States, and its allies. In the case of Israel, Hussein with great fanfare paid $25,000 "martyr" stipends to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers who murdered Israeli civilians. While profoundly secular himself, Hussein gained wide support throughout the radically religious elements of the Islamic world by pandering to such blood lust. Such gross opportunism also revealed his potential danger.

Thus, Hussein posed both a belligerent, tangible threat and an opportunity to shift the battleground in the War on Terror from Afghanistan to the heart of the Middle East. While denying terrorist access to Hussein's territory and weaponry, regime change in Iraq would also send a powerful and clear message to other Middle Eastern autocrats that US resolve was not something to be trifled with. Deposing Hussein in an overwhelming display of force would dramatically contradict Osama Bin Laden's statement that US forces were unwilling to fight. In a 1998 interview he proclaimed:

"We have seen in the last decade the decline of the American government and the weakness of the American soldier who is ready to wage Cold Wars and unprepared to fight long wars. This was proven in Beirut when the Marines fled after two explosions. It also proves they can run in less than 24 hours, and this was also repeated in Somalia. We are ready for all occasions. We rely on Allah."

In essence, Bin Laden had declared that the US was a paper tiger, willing to contain threats but unwilling to eradicate them. Hussein's consistent, defiant, hostile actions in the decade following the 1991 war seemed to confirm Bin Laden's taunt. The neo-conservative vision aimed to fundamentally change the paradigm. Two birds would be killed with one invasion -- Hussein's regime would be eliminated as a threat to US national security, and a powerful deterrent message would be communicated to the Middle East through action.

In sum, US military might has rendered regime change, at least comparatively speaking from a perspective of military history, relatively easy. The democratic construction has proven more difficult. To use Secretary Colin Powell's "pottery barn" metaphor, breaking the pot is not hard -- putting it back together to make it look how you want it is much harder. Such should not be so surprising to the American people or to the opportunist politicians and media elites who were prepared to declare a quagmire during the initial blitzkrieg to Baghdad.

The fact is that when America handed over sovereignty two days early on June 28, 2004, US forces had been in Iraq less than 18 months. If history is to be a guide, stable democracies are simply not built in such time. Security can be, but likely not when every radical element in the Middle East has a vested interest in preventing Iraqi stability from occurring. Terrorists of all kinds realize the danger of a stable Iraq, and an American victory on such a scale. They doubly realize the danger of an American-built democracy within the heart of the Arab world. Radical Shiite militants in Iran have a vested interest in supporting insurgents like Sadr's militia, with whom they have hoped to impose a Khomenei-style theocracy. Al Qaedists world wide have a vested interest in seeing America, their sworn enemy, fail. The autocrats across the Middle East have good reason to fear and undermine American success in Iraq. A thriving democratic Iraq in their midst would only further weaken the legitimacy of their autocratic rule.

These are not reasons to tuck and run. These are reasons to fight on. Yes, the neo-conservative paradigm has suffered a beating over the past year. But it is not doomed if Americans realize what is at stake in Mesopotamia. Iraq is the central front in the War on Terror. It was arguably an elective battle, but it will prove a decisive battle in an un-elective, defensive War on Terror. To say there is much at stake is an understatement. Iraq represents a direct confrontation between the United States of America and the combined forces of Islamic radicalism.

The War on Terror is not a metaphor like the "war on poverty" or the "war on drugs." Jihadist terrorists represent as great a threat to the United States and to civilization itself as Adolph Hitler or the Soviet Union ever did. A terrorist nuclear attack in an American city, or multiple American cities, would change the world forever. The US response would be necessarily vicious and massive. The escalation and loss of life on both sides is difficult to imagine. Thus, only with the very real prospect of Armageddon hanging overhead, can the War on Terror gain the sense of urgency that is frequently lost on a free people who have had to sacrifice little in the present war. There is no draft. When compared against a population of 270 million, few Americans have died. Such does not mean that the terrorist threat is any less deadly.

Iraqi realities have not doomed the viability of the strategic centerpiece in the War on Terror. They have challenged it and shown its importance. All of America's Jihadist enemies have come to fight, and America has a choice. We can unite and fight against civilization's enemies, building a free Iraq and forever changing the face of the modern Middle East. Or we can retreat in the face of barbarism, showing the superior will power of the forces of darkness. I for one believe my country is better than that.


TCS Daily Archives