The Same War

Published May 21, 2004, issue of May 21, 2004.
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In the space of eight days this month, Islamist radicals successfully assassinated both the president of the American-backed governing council in Iraq and the president of the Russian-backed government in Chechnya.

While America and the West frantically debate the progress of our war in Iraq, the mounting violence of the opposition and the best way to achieve victory, the evolving realities in the field are rendering our words meaningless as fast we can utter them. The issue is no longer how to achieve victory, but how to avoid disaster.

In a narrow sense, America’s war in Iraq and Russia’s war in Chechnya have little or nothing to do with each other. One began as a counter-insurgency effort by Moscow against separatists in a remote corner of the sovereign Russian federation, though it evolved over the course of a decade into an unpopular quagmire that tests the Kremlin’s authority and increasingly pits it against international forces of Islamist jihad. The other began as a crusade by Washington to topple a ruthless dictator, stabilize the Middle East and perhaps weaken the forces of international terrorism. Yet it too is rapidly turning into an unpopular quagmire that tests America’s authority. And, most disturbingly, it appears to be turning the dusty streets of Najaf and Karbala into rallying points for Islamic jihadists from around the world.

Iraq and Chechnya did not used to be the same war, just as Iraq and Afghanistan were not, just as Iraq and Gaza were not. Increasingly, however, they are becoming the same war, as Islamic radicals around the world grow in boldness, gain in popular support across the Muslim world and learn to work together. The convergence represents a stunning victory for the Islamists, and an equally stunning defeat for America and the West.

President Bush was right to declare, as he did in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, that America was at war against an evil of global proportions. Americans have sensed the hard truth and tried to rally around the president ever since, hoping that the president would rise to the occasion and lead us wisely. Americans know our nation is fundamentally good, and we know that we have the strength and resolve to prevail over evil, as we have so many times in the past. It was that fundamental faith in our nation and its institutions that was reflected in the warm reception the president received this week at the annual policy conference of Aipac, the pro-Israel lobbying group.

The bitter dilemma we face today is that the president has not led us wisely, and through his and his advisers’ ineptitude the dangers have become infinitely greater. Isolated conflicts in remote corners of the world have come to be seen as a single war. They are seen that way not only by the Islamist militants who plot the mayhem, but also by angry multitudes across the Arab and Muslim world who resent America’s efforts to impose its views and see Islamist resistance as a legitimate response. Worst of all, we have alienated our traditional allies and are forced to face the threats virtually alone.

The Bush administration’s crusade to impose its version of democracy and freedom around the world is turning into a catastrophe. The sooner we recognize that fact, the quicker we will be able to reverse it. If we want to bring democracy to the Muslim world, we should start by listening to the people who live there. They don’t want us telling them how to live.

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