TCS Daily


Flypaper Swatted

By Gregory Scoblete - July 12, 2005 12:00 AM

One of the many casualties of July 7th terrorist massacre in London is the argument that the conflict in Iraq serves to draw Islamic terrorists away from Western civilian targets toward U.S. military targets in Iraq. The so-called "flypaper theory" has always been the weakest arguments deployed on the war's behalf and the sooner it is interned, the better. (Full disclosure: I am supporter of the war and reconstruction of Iraq.)

The flypaper theory held that one of the key benefits of the Iraq war was the establishment of a battlefield more to our advantage. The presence of such a large contingent of U.S. forces in the heart of the Middle East represented an irresistible target for Islamic holy warriors -- drawing them like flies toward our troops and away from Western targets. Thus lured, the Jihadists would be matched, and dispatched, by superior U.S. forces in a military contest in which the terrorists would be out-gunned, out-manned and out maneuvered.

If the Middle East is crawling with wide-eyed fanatics bent on the West's demise, the argument went, better to bring the fight to their backyard where our troops could readily fulfill their death wish than surrender the initiative and docilely await further terror.

The argument found currency in the highest levels of government. President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld have repeatedly used the formulation that "we fight terrorists abroad so as not to fight them at home" while discussing the war in Iraq. In his latest address -- at Fort Bragg -- the President noted:

        Many terrorists who kill innocent men, women and children on the streets of 
        Baghdad are followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of 
        our citizens in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania.

        There is only one course of action against them: to defeat them abroad before 
        they attack us at home.

The Vice President has been more specific. In a speech to Marines last year, he stated:

        This nation has made a decision: We will engage the enemy -- facing him 
        with our military in Iraq and Afghanistan today, so we do not have to face him 
        with armies of firefighters, police, and medical personnel on the streets of 
        our own cities.

The strategy of aggressively preempting terrorists and terror-threats, the essence of the administration's counter-terrorism policy, is fundamentally sound. The problem begins when the pitched battle between Jihadists and U.S. forces in Iraq is framed as an either/or equation -- either we fight terrorists in Iraq or we fight them here -- because the reality, as London, Madrid, Turkey and the entire tragic litany demonstrates, is that we're fighting them everywhere. That Iraq has attracted the flies is both true and largely irrelevant; the flies continue to murderously alight elsewhere, despite our presence in Iraq.

Origin of a Theory

While its exact pedigree is difficult to determine, among the earliest invocations of the argument was found in an op-ed by writer David Warren. In a July 2003 essay titled "Flypaper" he wrote:

        While engaged in the very difficult business of building a democracy 
        in Iraq -- the first democracy, should it succeed, in the entire history of 
        the Arabs -- President Bush has also, quite consciously to my information, 
        created a new playground for the enemy, away from Israel, and even farther 
        away from the United States itself. By the very act of proving this lower 
        ground, he drains terrorist resources from other swamps....

        It should have been obvious that no U.S. President actually relishes having 
        his soldiers take casualties. What the media, and U.S. Democrats affect not 
        to grasp, is that the soldiers are now replacing targets that otherwise 
        would be provided by defenseless civilians, both in Iraq and at large. The 
        sore thumb of the U.S. occupation -- and it is a sore thumb equally to 
        Baathists and Islamists, compelling their response -- is not a mistake. It 
        is carefully hung flypaper.

And military columnist Austin Bay wrote that the "massive American build-up around Iraq serves as a baited trap that Al Qaeda cannot ignore."

It's true enough that al Qaeda and its ideological aspirants have swarmed into Iraq. It's also largely irrelevant to the larger question of whether al Qaeda retains the capabilities, and desire, to mount further attacks on Western targets. The attacks in London demonstrate that the jihad network can simultaneously battle U.S. forces in Iraq and mount sophisticated and lethal strikes on Western targets.

The idea that Iraq is an irresistible magnet for jihad, diverting the radicals' attention from U.S. domestic targets, assumes that there is a hard-and-fast number of holy warriors and that once they enter the killing fields of Iraq in sufficient numbers our troubles will be over. It also ignores the still open question of whether the conflict is motivating Muslims who would otherwise have demurred from martyrdom to join the fight and thus constitute a seemingly limitless suicide assembly line.

Flypaper was always a flawed paradigm, but it becomes even more so in the wake of increasing revelations as to the structure of the international Islamist threat. As the London and Madrid attacks show, al Qaeda is an even more decentralized movement than the one that coordinated the 9/11 assault, drawing principally from bin Laden's politics if not his purse. This means that the "central battlefield" on the war on terror is wherever a suitably fanatical Muslim is prepared to blow him/herself up. That U.S. forces are decamped enticingly in Iraq does not mean that terrorists will forsake Western targets.

Indeed, bin Laden recently exhorted his "field commander" in Iraq -- Abu Musab al-Zarqawi -- to broaden his horizons with attacks on the West and against the American homeland. A follow-up strike on American soil is, according to CIA director Porter Goss' senate testimony, the ne plus ultra of the al Qaeda-inspired Islamist movement. An attack against the West in the West is obviously very much in the mind of senior terrorists regardless of the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq.

This is not to suggest that Iraq is not a vastly important battlefield in the war on Islamic terrorism. Terrorists do view the battle for Iraq as a chance to duplicate the Soviet Union's bruising defeat in Afghanistan, which they erroneously credit for its subsequent collapse. In their eyes, an American loss in Iraq (the definition of which is still very fluid) would be an immense moral and psychological victory for the terrorists, proving definitively that America and the West can be cowed with the application of brutal violence. Yet this apocalyptic battle in Iraq is not enough of a lure to ensure that the homeland or allied capitals are secure, and if we draw comfort from the fact that we're battling them "over there" in Iraq it is false comfort indeed.

The grim truth is we're battling them everywhere.

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