Recent discussions of terrorism and the war in Iraq suggest some points worth raising. Both kinds of warfare are likely to shape our forces in the future. In September 2001 the United States had just been attacked, on its own soil, for the first time since 1941. It may be forgotten that at the time the United States was already at war with Iraq, and had been since 1991. It was not immediately clear whether the two wars were connected, and the degree of connection is controversial. What should not be forgotten is that Afghanistan and Iraq involved vital U.S. interests. The United States had to remain engaged in both kinds of conflict.
Iraq was vital because Saddam Hussein regularly threatened the oil states of the Gulf. Their security is of vital interest to the United States not because the U.S. wants to seize control of oil, but because we want to insure access. Saddam clearly saw control of the Gulf as a means of exerting pressure on the West, and it became obvious that he had little interest in the welfare of his own population and could afford not to sell.
Afghanistan was of limited interest to the United States until it became clear, well after 11 September, that Al Qaeda not only had secured refuge there, but dominated the Taliban government running the country. As long as Al Qaeda had a secure base area, it could continue to mount attacks by infiltrating into the West. Destroying the base might well not destroy Al Qaeda altogether, but it was a necessary first step.
Neither war could be neglected. The United States had to be able to deploy forces against different enemies at roughly the same time. We can no longer point to a single enemy, such as the Soviet Union. Even if we wish to point at political extremist Islam, in the form of Al Qaeda, it has independent or fairly independent clones in places such as the Philippines and Indonesia. The new naval concept of operations describes ways the fleet can form larger numbers of independent striking groups capable of operating in more places simultaneously. The need for more surface combatants becomes obvious.
In 2001 the U.S. strategy toward Iraq was containment. The hope was that continuing pressure would prevent Saddam Hussein from developing the weapons of mass destruction he sought. Saddam's successful ejection of United Nations inspectors in 1998 seemed to signal that he was restarting the programs of the past.
There was real hope that ongoing measures would compel Saddam to complete disarmament or would eliminate Saddam altogether. The first policy was reinforced by an embargo intended to limit Iraqi resources. The second included congressional support for Iraqi groups trying to topple Saddam, no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq, and support for an anti-Saddam regime in Kurdistan. None of these measures was particularly effective. The United States failed to resist Saddam's move into the Kurdish area, and the embargo was porous.
As it was, containing Iraq involved considerable U.S. resources, mainly from the Air Force and the Navy. The Air Force's presence in Saudi Arabia, necessary to maintain the no-fly zones, served Osama bin Laden as an excuse for hostility toward the United States. The Iraqis represented the embargo as an attack, not on Saddam Hussein, but on the Iraqi public. It is now fairly clear that the embargo underlined Saddam's power as the only source of goods, because he circumvented the embargo. Thus, a measure designed to weaken him actually strengthened his position at home.
Now consider the impact of 11 September 2001. Because the United States effectively was already at war with Iraq, Saddam had to figure high on the list of suspects. Even if he was not involved, there was a fear that containment could not be pursued much longer while forces were deployed to deal worldwide with Al Qaeda. And to abandon containment would have had devastating consequences. Whatever efforts Saddam had been making to gain super-weapons would have accelerated. UN efforts might have suspended them, but Saddam's scientists and, probably many of their scientific records, had survived. Abandoning containment would have been a victory for an enemy of the United States. Much of what is happening in the war against terrorists depends on the general belief or disbelief in our ability to prevail. Admitting that the Gulf War of 1991 had in effect ended in defeat could not have helped.
Thus, part of any antiterror strategy had to end the lengthy war against Saddam Hussein. Certainly, the aftermath of war has tied down substantial U.S. ground forces, but not the mobile naval and air strike forces the containment policy employed. They are now free to deal with other crises.
Some have argued that the basis of containment was a misunderstanding, that in their visit late in 2002, the UN inspectors discovered nothing. And no weapons have been discovered since the end of the war. Perhaps the main reason no Iraqi scientists have come forward since the end of the war to show us stocks of weapons or special laboratories is that those who worked on the weapons feel the program would be the crown jewel of any Iraqi regime, its key to regional power. Discovery of weapons may well require some accidental disclosure. In 1991, after the first Gulf War, the UN inspection team declared there had been no Iraqi nuclear program. In 1994, one of Saddam's sons-in-law, who had inside information, defected. Only then did inspectors know where to look. We do have better access to Iraq than we did in 1991-1994, but as long as an insurgency continues, access will be limited. Perhaps the most important message we are getting is the technology to discover weapons programs is not nearly as good as we had imagined. It is also possible, of course, that parts of the program were sent to safer quarters overseas. In that case, we really cannot know just how close the Iraqis were to having nuclear weapons.
Remember, too, that Saddam used nerve gas against both Iran and elements of his own population. Prior to the 2003 Gulf War, coalition commanders feared that the Iraqis would fire gas shells. They had two counters. One was obvious-issue chemical suits and alarms. The other was the threat that any Iraqi commander who fired such shells would be treated as a war criminal. In the context of Iraqi experience, that meant execution. After the war, an Iraqi colonel came forth and said he had been issued chemical shells-exactly the weapons of mass destruction we have been seeking. He had not wanted to risk execution, so he told his men to bury the shells in the desert; he didn't want to know exactly where. Presumably, many at the colonel's level had much the same idea, and they would do their best to protect themselves.
There is the question of the connection, if any, between Iraq and terrorism. There is no question that 11 September was the work of Al Qaeda. It appears, partly on the basis of records found in Iraq, that Saddam regarded Al Qaeda with warmth. He also provided refuge to some major terrorists, including an instigator of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Saddam seems to have liked Al Qaeda enough to import some of its cells from Afghanistan to harass the anti-Saddam Kurdish regime in northern Iraq. On the whole, however, Saddam was running a secular regime. So whom are we fighting, Muslim extremists or terrorists in general?
The answer is not clear, because Al Qaeda is hardly the only terrorist organization operating in the Muslim world. At present, the others are concerned largely with attacking Israel. Al Qaeda's contribution to the terrorist mind-set was the conclusion that power in the Middle East lay not through places such as Cairo or even Israel, but through the backers of the regimes it hated, mainly the United States. This view is likely to have been adopted by other groups.
More to the point, if the target of groups such as Al Qaeda is really power within the Muslim world, then its key enemies are current Muslim governments, such as those of Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. For Al Qaeda, the 11 September targets offered very graphic testimony to its power. It would not have had to fight if everyone had accepted its vision. Not only do Muslim governments have an intense desire to remain in power rather than accept Osama and his associates as their rulers, there are other claimants to the hearts and minds of the Muslims Osama courts. In fact, many Muslim groups, some of them quite secular, are competing with each other.
The U.S. government's reaction to 11 September was nuanced. In one sense, Osama and Al Qaeda were to blame, and the war in Afghanistan attacked their operating base. The dislocation it caused probably explains why nothing similar to 11 September has happened in the United States since then. However, in a wider sense 11 September could be seen as the product of the disastrous state of most Middle Eastern governments. The 11 September attacks can be seen, in fact, as the sort of terrorism visible daily in Israel, but on a much deadlier scale.
The Bush administration has observed that age-old antagonisms have evaporated gradually in the face of prosperity and some form of democracy. Prosperity gives people something to do other than hate their neighbors. In many cases, autocratic governments make peace for all the practical reasons but meanwhile can preach what amounts to war to keep them in power. The U.S. hope is not only that a democratic government also will see the immediate advantages of making peace, but also that the peace will be durable. In order to make peace, that government will have to convince its own population of the virtues of this policy.
The war in Iraq can be seen as an attempt to cut the Gordian Knot of Middle Eastern autocratic politics. Iraq is unlikely to become a Jeffersonian democracy. Historians know that even the United States was hardly democratic in current terms for many decades. A post-Saddam Iraq, however, is likely to have a government far more answerable to its population. It will have vast resources, but its population needs a great deal, so there will be little left over for weapons of mass destruction. If democracy brings, as we hope, considerable prosperity, then we can hope the idea will spread. In that case, it could be much more difficult for terrorists to sell their ideas.
Dr. Friedman's latest book is Terrorism, Afghanistan, and America's New Way of War (Naval Institute Press, 2003).