[OUTLOOK]Mixed results in war on terror

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[OUTLOOK]Mixed results in war on terror

The U.S. invasion of Iraq commenced a year ago. Over the past week, the American press has been full of post mortems ― analyses of results achieved and pitfalls that lie ahead. Much of the focus is on the past; e.g., why the intelligence was faulty, and whether a preventive war was warranted. The political content is high. A new book by a former terrorism official, Dick Clarke, takes dead aim at President Bush’s counter-terrorism record before and after Sept. 11. Republican attack ads, meanwhile, suggest that John Kerry voted on both sides of the Iraq issue, and is talking out of both sides of his mouth. Leaving politics aside, how does the balance sheet on the Iraqi intervention look at this stage?
The Iraqi people are surely better off without Saddam Hussein. Real progress has been made in restoring basic services, rebuilding schools, reviving the local economy, and fashioning new political institutions. The activities of insurgents (many of them foreigners) receive much press attention, but most Iraqi leaders are cooperating with the reconstruction effort, and most ordinary people recognize that Iraq has its best chance in decades of building a stable, prosperous, and pluralistic country.
The display of coercive force against Saddam Hussein removed a residual security threat to Iraq’s neighbors, hastened Libya’s decision to relinquish its weapons of mass destruction, and provided the Europeans diplomatic leverage with which to secure Teheran’s grudging acceptance of more rigorous international inspections of its nuclear program.
The preemptive war against Iraq also opened wider strategic and political opportunities for the United States in the Middle East. It permitted the Pentagon to withdraw virtually all U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia. It put the leaders of trouble-making countries like Syria on notice, and stirred reformist impulses in many Arab lands. And it placed the modernization and democratization of the Middle East ― a “root cause” of terrorism ― on the American foreign policy agenda.
These are significant developments; unfortunately, they are not the only news.
U.S. security policy in Iraq appears to be focused heavily on “chasing insurgents” while protecting Americans. This is understandable, and U.S. casualties have been down a bit recently. But stability in Iraq requires basic security for its people. Without stability, reconstruction will falter.
The international counterterrorist coalition remains fragile. Al Qaeda is targeting the weak links, and found one with its attacks in Spain on the eve of its recent election. The Italians, Australians, Poles, and British must now anticipate that the terrorists will target their civilians as a means of testing other “soft spots.”
We have been missing in action in the battle for Islamic hearts and minds. Depriving Al Qaeda of sanctuaries within Arab nations requires the active cooperation of Muslim governments. But as Martin Wolf recently observed in the Financial Times, “The terrorists’ home bases can be eliminated only if the Islamic world first makes it impossible for people dedicated to the mass murder of innocents to find a home of any sort inside it.” Most haven’t. The most recent Pew Research polls, moreover, suggest that Osama bin Laden’s popularity has gone up, while that of the Bush administration has gone down in the Middle East and South Asia. And weak governments typically tend to duck tough decisions.
Nor has Washington fully capitalized on new strategic opportunities in the Middle East. To be sure, it has had its hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has been extremely timid in exploring possibilities for a more productive dialogue with Teheran. The practical measures it has advanced to foster democracy in the Middle East ― aside from Iraq ― appear scarcely commensurate either with the Administration’s rhetoric or the magnitude of the challenge. More seriously, no significant attempt has been mounted to get serious Israeli-Palestinian talks back on track.
A year has passed since the ouster of Saddam Hussein. For better or worse, Iraq has become a main ― perhaps the main ― arena for Al Qaeda to confront the United States. A successful Iraqi transition to stability, prosperity, and pluralistic politics is now critical to the achievement of foreign policy priorities that America shares with the rest of the civilized world ― i.e. identifying and punishing terrorists, impeding the spread of nuclear weapons, and persuading the Muslim world to modernize. None of those tasks can be accomplished by America alone. It needs all the help it can get. Washington will surely enhance its chances of securing much-needed assistance if it tones down its rhetoric and displays greater sensitivity to the concerns of its friends and allies. Others, meanwhile, need to remember that only the terrorists will benefit if time is wasted squabbling over past mistakes rather than doing what is necessary to assure that a “new Iraq” is a better Iraq, and that its success revitalizes a joint struggle against terrorism.

* The writer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, is a professor at Stanford University.

by Michael H. Armacost
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