Forget for a moment how shamelessly President George W. Bush tried to manipulate Americans’ emotions by invoking September 11 six times during his recent prime-time sales pitch for staying the course in Iraq. There is no need to recall the reports finding no connection between that day’s terrorist attacks and Iraq, and no call for repeating that Iraq was not in danger of becoming a “safe haven” for al-Qaida until after it was invaded. The president doesn’t really claim otherwise.
Instead, he says that, since the invasion, “ruthless killers” affiliated with al-Qaida “are converging on Iraq to fight the advance of peace and freedom.” Whatever its pre-war state of affairs, today Iraq has become a “central front” in the global war on these extremist Islamists. Hence, the United States has only one option”to defeat them abroad before they attack us at home.” This is the so-called “flypaper” theory of the war on terrorism: If you can’t find al-Qaida fighters where they are hiding, attract them to an overseas locale where overwhelming U.S. firepower will guarantee their demise. Mr. Bush made this theory the centerpiece of his effort to convince Americans that an open-ended military deployment in Iraq is “vital to the future security of our country.”
Forget that U.S. commanders in Iraq say “foreign fighters” constitute a tiny minority of the insurgents they are battling. Don’t unravel the tangled logic whereby the bait luring jihadis to Iraq is also the only means of saving Iraq from their mortars and car bombings. Did anyone ask Iraqis if they wanted the United States to hang its flypaper in their country?
Iraqi civilians, after all, have taken the vast majority of casualties inflicted by the small jihadi wing of the insurgency. Iraq’s interior minister states that 12,000 civilians have been killed during the past 18 months, most of them Shiites. They were victims of Sunni jihadis’ attempt to stoke sectarian strife. Clearly, bombings outside mosques and in marketplaces have exacted a disproportionate civilian toll. Still more civilian bystanders have died in attacks directed at recruits of the nascent Iraqi police force and national guard, or at U.S. troops.
Iraqis for their part are not confused about whether the U.S. presence is the cause or the cure for this insecurity. As far back as May 2004, a U.S.-sponsored poll found that 59 percent of Iraqi Arabs thought attacks on U.S. soldiers occurred because the attackers want all foreign forces to leave, and, 53 percent thought they occurred to protect Iraqi national dignity. Undoubtedly, the elements of the insurgency that target civilians have ulterior motives from killing Shiites because they are “infidels” to fomenting civil war as well as the aspiration to expel U.S. soldiers from the heartland of classical Islamic civilization. But the fact remains that these dark forces whether they are of foreign or indigenous have been unleashed by the U.S.-led invasion and occupation. U.S. withdrawal from Iraq might not dispel these forces, but the longer the United States stays in Iraq, the stronger they are likely to get.
It is offensive, to be sure, that the White House still thinks Americans are so gullible as to believe that the September 11 attacks justify the war in Iraq. But the Bush administration reveals even greater contempt for both the public’s intelligence and its sense of decency when it insists, in effect, that the future security of Americans requires that Iraqis mortgage their security indefinitely. There is no reason whatsoever why invading a Muslim country however many “foreign fighters” the invading force entraps necessarily reduces the risk of a radical Islamist attack on U.S. soil. Quite the opposite may be true. Meanwhile, the inescapable corollary of Bush’s flypaper theory is: If thousands of Iraqi civilians are killed in the crossfire, better them than us.