Australia/Israel Review

Running From Iraq

Nov 1, 2006 | Reuel Marc Gerecht

Is jihadism growing exponentially because of Iraq? The liberal parts of the press and numerous counter-terrorist experts say as much. They cite the classified US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) “Trends in Global Terrorism”, completed in April 2006 but recently leaked in snippets, which they claim concluded that we are losing the fight against Islamic extremism because the war in Iraq is producing ever-expanding waves of holy warriors.

While it is surely true that jihadism is alive and well, and that the Iraq war has a role in its continued vibrancy, the insistence on a causal connection obscures a host of lasting factors that would powerfully fuel America-hatred whether or not the United States had gone back to Iraq. It also invites the fantasy that our exiting Iraq would leave us better off, when in all likelihood it would fan the flames of jihadism.

The NIE, or at least the “Key Judgments” summary that President Bush declassified and released, didn’t in fact say that the war in Iraq had made us less safe, or that Iraq was necessarily the primary ingredient fuelling the “global jihadist movement.” But the summary certainly implied that things aren’t good and that Iraq has become a rallying cry among Sunni holy warriors. It raises legitimate questions. If abandoning Iraq would reduce the terrorist threat to the United States and leave the Middle East in better shape, then that course would be compelling.

Before March 2003, much of the counter-terrorist community had already decided that an American-led war in Iraq would harm the West’s counter-terrorist efforts. Were they right? Is Iraq jet fuel for the anti-American hatred of jihadists? And if so, does that mean the United States should refrain from pushing policies that infuriate extremists across the Islamic world?

Let us be absolutely clear: The war and its most tangible result – the empowerment of the Iraqi Shi’a and Kurds – have galvanised a Sunni jihadist cause in Mesopotamia. The Sunni will to power is a ferocious thing. Neither the CIA nor State Department analysts foresaw either the amplitude of this sentiment or the spread of fundamentalism among the Sunni community, widely deemed the bedrock of secularism inside Iraq. And the war has certainly provided riveting imagery and stories for Sunni holy warriors globally. It’s reasonable to assume that the conflict has helped anti-American Sunni jihadists multiply their numbers.

Iraq, moreover, like Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War, has provided a place where jihadists from different lands can meet, become blood brothers, and acquire deadly skills. Holy warriors in Iraq might learn something from Baathists turned Sunni supremacists. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq trained many men to kill efficiently and savagely. Foreign holy warriors who hook up with ex-Baathists in Iraq will probably go home more dangerous than when they arrived – especially, as the NIE warned, if they go home victorious.

Al-Qaeda spokesmen regularly declare that Iraq is at the centre of their global effort to humble the United States, the great violator of Islamic lands and virtue. We should believe them – although their preferred battleground would still be America if they could figure out a way to put jihadist cells onto American soil. The Bush Administration and Muslim Americans, who have shown themselves highly resistant to the holy-warrior call, have so far kept al-Qaeda from again fulfilling its dearest dream.

That’s about all one can say for sure about the effects of Iraq on the global jihadist movement. Yet that’s not where the administration’s critics like to stop. In their eyes, the Iraq war has somehow ruptured the radical Muslim psyche in ways that earlier events and pre-existing factors did not.

In these critics’ distorted perspective, the singular provocation of the Iraq war trumps all the other well-known spurs to jihadist fury: the American flight from Beirut after the bombings in 1983, the American flight from Somalia after “Black Hawk down,” the attack on the US embassies in Africa, the USS Cole, 9/11, the continual bombing of Iraq under the Clinton Administration, the economic sanctions against Saddam’s regime that Muslims saw as choking the Iraqi people. The Iraq war, as the critics see it, overwhelms the American attack on the Taliban and bin Laden, the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan, bin Laden’s survivor charisma, the Pakistani madrassa machine, General Pervez Musharraf’s retreat from Waziristan, the Saudi Wahhabi multi-tentacled missionary-money machine – still the most influential conveyer of anti-American, anti-Western, antisemitic, and anti-Christian hatred in the world – the existence of Israel, the Israeli retreat from Lebanon in 2000, Palestinian suicide bombings, the resurgence of Hezbollah, the triumph of American pop culture in Muslim lands, the Satanic Verses, Danish cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad, the Western assault on traditional sexual ethics and the God-ordained male domination of the Muslim home, the constant, positivist legal assault on the Holy Law, American and European support for Muslim dictatorships, the Western-centred, Western-aping, increasingly brutal Muslim regimes that have transgressed against God ever since Napoleon routed the Mameluks outside Alexandria in 1798, and the unbearable Western military supremacy that reversed a millennium of nearly uninterrupted Muslim triumphs. To these critics, the Iraq war somehow is uglier than the whole cosmological affront of the modern world: Western Christians, Jews, and atheists on top; Asian Buddhists, Confucians, and Shintoists gaining power; the Hindu pantheists rising; and the Muslims, Allah’s chosen people, descending.

All of this is downgraded before Iraq. It is particularly astonishing to see Iraq-centred critics discount the role of Pakistan and “post-Taliban” Afghanistan in fuelling jihadism. It is arguable that Pakistan – not mentioned in the NIE’s “Key Judgments” – has now replaced Saudi Arabia and Egypt as the intellectual breeding ground of jihadism. And what has been going on in Pakistan for decades has almost nothing to do with Iraq. European and Pakistani holy warriors no doubt cite Iraq as one of America’s sins, but beneath these declarations lie volcanoes rumbling from pressures much closer to home.


In the hands of the Iraq-centred critics, too, a century-long history of ideas drops by the wayside. Sayyid Qutb – probably the most influential intellectual force behind modern Sunni holy war, who demanded of his followers that they look inward to fight the internal rot brought on by the meretricious appeal of Western ways – is pushed into the background. Qutb knew that Israel’s victories over the Arabs were just a symptom of a deeper Muslim weakness. His followers, like many less violent members of the Muslim Brotherhood, did not rise in indignation when the Israelis annihilated Gamal Abdel Nasser’s armies in 1967. That was condign punishment for an Egyptian leader who’d fallen from the faith. Like the great medieval, hard-line jurist ibn Taymiyya, who rose in anger at Muslims’ aping and tolerating Mongol ways, Qutb declared war not against “Western imperialism” but against the Muslim infatuation with the West. He helped devise the ethics that in just two generations would allow young Muslim men to slaughter men and women in Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, Madrid, London, and New York.

The Iraq-centred critics turn the wisdom of Qutb on its head, by looking for the sources of Muslim anger in American actions, principally in Iraq. Many of Bush’s harshest critics now begin every counter terrorist discussion with polls of the Muslim world. For them, a successful counter-terrorist foreign policy ought to improve our image among Muslims.

Under Bush, these critics say, American foreign policy has become harsh and insensitive to Muslim feelings. Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, secret CIA prisons, and other nefarious acts have supposedly given the United States a bad name among Muslims – if we hadn’t already squandered our credibility by failing to be a “fair and honest broker” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These events have supposedly tarnished democracy and strengthened dictatorship in the region. Yet the most powerful force in Egypt trying to force democratic practices upon the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak is the Muslim Brotherhood, and there is no evidence the Brotherhood wants democracy less because of American action in Iraq. Iraq may be going to hell in a hand basket, but it is an enormously dubious proposition that the powerless of the Middle East think better of their dictators because of the turmoil there.

Point: Islamic militants loathe Israel, which they view as a Jewish-Western colonial state occupying land vouchsafed to Muslims by God. There are very few mundane things that anger militant Muslims more than the “peace process,” the attempt by the Americans and the Europeans to once again seduce Muslim rulers into actions betraying God, his Holy Law, and his people. But would administration critics want to walk away from the peace process because such negotiations infuriate radical Muslims, making their transformation into lethal anti-American holy warriors more likely?

Ditto for advocating women’s rights among Muslims. The historian Bernard Lewis is right: The West’s gradual liberation of women in their domestic and social roles is one of the principal factors behind the West’s modern preeminence. And it has made the Islamic world’s entry into modernity emotionally agonising. The Franco-Iranian scholar Farhad Khosrokhavar (who recently published a fascinating study of members of al-Qaeda in French prisons) summed it up nicely when he wrote:  

In removing the veil from Muslim women and in extolling a legal equality [between the sexes], which contravenes the laws of God and destroys the integrity of the family and its equitable sharing of duties between men and women, the West attempts to pervert the female race. According to the Holy Law, which [Muslim militants] interpret literally, refusing any evolution as a degradation of the faith’s sovereignty, women ought to dedicate themselves to the family and the home while men remain masters of all that transpires in the public realm. The West smashes this fundamental relationship, sanctioned by God, through inseminating the virus of egalitarianism, hedonism, and sexual perversion. The liberation of women is thus in the same domain [for Islamic militants] as homosexuality and HIV.  

Yet should we back down from advocating equality between men and women in Islamic countries because such advocacy makes some Muslims more inclined to convert civilian jetliners into fuel bombs? Should we chastise our artists and writers – and Muslim artists and writers who’ve come to the West for its freedom – if they transgress the proprieties of faithful Muslims, especially radical Muslims who require only a little more psychological TNT to send them over the edge into holy war?

Many jihad-rising critics and former counter-terrorist officials argue that we need to avoid behaviour that inflames anti-American Muslim passions. By this reasoning, we will always be playing defence to their offence and possibly violent umbrage.

Do the jihad-rising critics want to rewrite history, and stop President Clinton’s WMD bombings and sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime, knowing now how bin Laden exploited Muslim solidarity by underscoring this Western aggression? Should we just have let Saddam go free (he was almost there in 2000)? The vast majority of Muslims in the Middle East certainly would have applauded. By this reasoning, who knows how many Muslim militants would have refrained from the leap into the all-consuming hatred of jihad? Maybe one of the 9/11 bombers wouldn’t have flipped if we’d stopped bombing and sanctioning Iraq. Then again, perhaps such a cessation would have whetted the appetite of the same militants. To bin Laden and those who’ve embraced his cause, American defeats have been much more inspiring than American victories.


The truth is that much of what the United States and its allies needs to do to win the war on Islamic extremism will naturally infuriate those who view the United States and American culture as threatening to Islam, all the more because they also find it appealing. Your average Muslim fundamentalist, who has no intention of becoming a holy warrior, fears and hates, and admires and envies, America. Such men and women are probably near a majority of all Muslims in every Arab land. Almost everything the United States does in this world ought to annoy these people. Much of what the United States needs to do will outrage them.

For example, the United States will continue to work with the security and intelligence services of many Middle Eastern autocracies. Unfortunately, the CIA is incapable of truly judging the value of such dealings since its bureaucratic interests are best served by inflating these “secret” relationships. But even if Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Pakistan contribute little to our well-being, in an age of mass-casualty terrorism, a bit of information at the right moment could matter enormously. We will deal with these distasteful regimes, and their subjects will understandably despise us for it.

Even if we ramp up our criticism of these regimes – and we should – and start to distance ourselves from them and condition our aid, we will still be condemned by many in the region for advocating democracy but supporting dictatorship. Nor are we going to stop supporting Israel or opposing terrorist organisations that are also popular social movements (Hamas and Hezbollah), or speaking in favor of women’s equality and artistic freedom. For these reasons and more, anti-Americanism is going to remain high.

What’s more, if the Middle East evolves democratically – and the democratic conversation, amplified by the deposing of Saddam Hussein, remains vibrant – anti-Americanism will shoot through the roof. Fundamentalists will enter the public conversation even more loudly than they have already.


Muslims’ questioning of their own world has gained steam since 9/11. Perverse as it is, the carnage in Mesopotamia, like the slaughter in Algeria and Egypt in the 1990s, has forced some reflection among Muslims about their faith and the hideous abuse it has suffered at the hands of some believers. It would be wrong to call this widespread, but it is a start. If the United States gets driven from Iraq, the soul-searching necessary to combat Islamic extremism will also suffer a rout. When Hezbollah appeared victorious over the Israelis this summer, even moderate and liberal Arab Muslims began to rethink their accommodationist stance toward the Jewish state. The very liberal Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the University of Jordan’s Centre for Strategic Studies, who has welcomed Israelis to Amman, jumped for joy when the Israelis bogged down in Lebanon. He referred to the Israelis as Nazis. Can one ever compromise with Nazis? Intellectually honest, and unquestionably voicing publicly what many moderates were thinking privately, Hamarneh wondered why Arabs should seek peace with Israel if in fact the Zionists were beatable on the battlefield. If we withdraw from Iraq, expect Muslim liberals and moderates to once again nose-dive throughout the Middle East.

When Islamic activists become more responsible for governance, the fundamentalist civil wars will begin. (This process is starting in the Palestinian lands.) The introspection, debates, and fall from grace will be painful and quite possibly violent, as devout Muslims who incorporate the community’s popular will into God’s law fight it out with fundamentalists who view man-made legislation as an insult to Allah.

This contest is not what the Bush Administration foresaw when it espoused democracy in the Middle East as part of the solution to the evil that struck us on 9/11. But the president’s democratic reflex was correct. And as faithful Muslims decide how much of Western political thought to incorporate into their own, anti-Americanism will skyrocket. Indeed, rising anti-Americanism will be a pretty good barometer of how serious the democratic-religious debates are in the Muslim Middle East. The more serious the debates, the more furious the flailing out against America by the hard-core militant Muslims will be.

The complexity of this picture suggests, among other things, how shallow the discussion has been among those who see our mistakes in Iraq as the epicentre of our terrorist problem. Discussion of what will happen if the United States pulls out of Iraq has been similarly thin.

Osama bin Laden has always claimed that he and his followers are the “strong horse” and that the United States is a “weak horse,” unable to sustain a long war against the faithful. A major American humiliation in Iraq would probably produce what the jihad-rising crowd think Iraq is already: an extraordinary stimulus to holy-warrior passion – Beirut, Mogadishu, the embassy bombings, the Cole, and 9/11 all rolled into one. The critics should at least try to make the argument that the hell we have now is worse than the whirlwind we will reap after we run.

Of course, we might be lucky. The Iraqi Shi’ites could conceivably save us from seeing the jihadists triumph in Iraq. The Iraqi Sunnis won’t. Their traditional social structure was mortally wounded by Saddam. The Sunni elite of Samarra, for example – probably the most bourgeois town in Sunni Iraq – tried but failed to hold out against the radical Sunni supremacists, fundamentalists, and jihadists. The Sunni elders of Samarra actually cherished the Shi’ite Golden Shrine. The odds are very poor that traditional Sunni hierarchies and the non-radicalised tribes outside of the major urban areas can withstand the Sunni radicals.

The Iraqi Sunni community has no grand ayatollahs and clerical structure of the Shi’ite kind to moderate and block its violent young men. Assuming the Shi’ites don’t conquer the Sunni triangle, the Sunni community by itself will not spare us the sight of triumphant jihadists taking over American bases and planting their flags for all to see, courtesy of Al Jazeera’s satellite coverage. Every man, woman, and child in the Muslim world will be flooded with vivid, lasting images of America’s flight from Iraq.

Yet if the Shi’ites save us from the last-GI-out-of-Baghdad jihad recruitment videos by subduing the Sunni insurgency while we’re still in Iraq, it will doubtless be by slaughtering all the bomb-happy Sunnis they can get their hands on. And that Shi’ite-Sunni collision could powerfully stoke the anti-American flames. The Salafis and Wahhabi fundamentalists loathe the Shi’ites, whom they view as mushrikun, those who ascribe partners to God. The Shi’ite charismatic view of history, where the Caliph Ali and his descendants, the imams, are indispensable intermediaries between God and man, is anathema to most Sunnis. In the eyes of many Sunnis in Iraq and elsewhere, the Iraqi Shi’a already carry the burden of being liberated by the Americans. If the Shi’ites are forced to conquer the Sunni triangle, which they probably will be, Sunni Arabs will blame the United States, perhaps with a new level of ferocity.

And neighbours will not stand idly by. The Saudi fundamentalists, apparently the largest contingent of foreign holy warriors in Iraq, would add one more item to their list of satanic things the United States has done. An overt and proud Shi’ite conquest of Iraq – which is probably inevitable if the Americans leave – would spook the Saudis, who would probably aggressively back their Wahhabi establishment’s holy war against the Shi’a, supplying money and weapons to Iraq’s Sunni Arabs.

The Jordanian and Egyptian Sunni establishments might do this, too, given their fear of a “pro-Iranian” Shi’ite bloc developing. In addition, the Jordanians would fear a tsunami of Sunni refugees from Iraq, threatening to change the politics and culture of Hashemite Jordan (think radicalisation beyond the wildest hopes of Yasser Arafat). Foreign aid would prolong the conflagration in Iraq. It is worth recalling the explosion of Islamic radicalism that followed the Iranian revolution in 1979: The Saudis and Iranians went head to head in supporting their preferred Muslim radicals, a competition the Saudis decisively won, with Osama bin Laden a major beneficiary. A new battle between Sunnis and Shi’ites would spur missionary activity, perhaps on a scale not seen since the 1980s.


One thing is highly probable: If the Americans flee, and the Shi’ites begin a vengeful conquest of the country, Teheran, which is already making a play to lead the radical Muslim world, will reach out globally to Sunni holy warriors to divert attention from the Iraqi Shi’ite counter-attack against Iraqi Sunnis. The Iranian appeal will be to target America. And the heretical Shi’ite Alawite regime in Damascus would likely echo this call, especially since the Syrian Sunni majority is becoming more devout. This would be an unintended, unpleasant consequence of the war in Iraq – of our mishandled counterinsurgency against the Sunnis and inadequate Defence of the vanishing moderate Shi’ite centre against ever-more powerful Shi’ite radicals.

In Vietnam, the South Vietnamese government deployed a tolerably competent military force that held for a “decent interval” after our departure. This is unlikely in Iraq. When we start withdrawing, the entire Iraqi governing structure, along with the Iraqi Army, will probably fracture along ethnic and religious lines.

Once upon a time, the Iraqi Army had a strong identity, which it often forced upon the rest of the nation, but that identity was inextricably connected to the Sunni governing class. Although there are many Sunnis serving in the new Iraqi army, their service to the country probably won’t withstand the tough counter-insurgency that will be required to calm the Sunni triangle. Sunni participation in the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, also will probably end with a serious counter-insurgency effort.

And it is equally unlikely that a Shi’ite-dominated army will be able to restrain its own kith and kin in the Shi’ite militias, at least while the Sunni insurgency thrives. They certainly won’t be able to do so if they know the Americans are leaving. An American departure, be it rapid or gradual, anytime in the next few years would further stampede Iraqis to retreat to the security of their ethnic and religious communities. And US threats to withdraw unless the Iraqis do a better job of forming a national-unity government and constraining their violent passions solicits from the Iraqis just the opposite of what is intended.


A forceful US presence in Iraq was always the key to ensuring that Iraq’s national identity had a chance to congeal peacefully – that the Sunni will to power was contained, that Shi’ite fear and loathing of the Baathists and Sunni fundamentalists didn’t ignite into all-consuming revenge, destroying the Shi’ite centre led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and that Kurdish separatism didn’t flare. We’re beyond that now. But we’re not beyond checking the worst tendencies within Iraqi society.

We are certainly not beyond the chance that the Iraqis can govern themselves more humanely than they were governed under Saddam Hussein. Whoever thinks Iraq is hell on earth now is suffering from a failure of imagination. If we leave, it will, in all probability, get vastly worse.

And for those who are concerned about the geostrategic stability of the Middle East or the growth of Sunni jihadism and terrorism against the United States, staying in Iraq ought to be a compelling choice. We don’t need to “stay the course” that Rumsfeld and Abizaid have designed. Instead, we should follow the road map offered recently by the military historian Frederick W. Kagan. It’s the best plan out there for winning. We – not the Iraqis – need to lead a major effort to break the Sunni insurgency. We – not the Iraqis – must police the Shi’ite-dominated security services to ensure they don’t slaughter the Sunnis, especially as we and a Shi’ite-dominated Army with an important Kurdish contingent make a more serious effort to control Baghdad, Ramadi, and the centres of Sunni resistance. We need to keep building up a Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi army and slowly deploying it in ways that it can handle – with integral American involvement, as at Tal Afar. We should expect a few Iraqi governments to collapse before we start seeing real progress. Yet our presence in Iraq is the key to ensuring that Shi’ite-led governments don’t collapse into a radical hard core.

If we no longer have the stomach for this fight – and it’s going to be ugly, with few sterling VIP Iraqis who will make us proud – then we should at least be honest with ourselves. Leaving Iraq will not make our world better. We will be a defeated nation. Our holy-warrior and our more mundane enemies will know it. And we can rest assured that they will make us pay. Over and over and over again.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA analyst specialising in the Middle East, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © Weekly Standard, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.


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