Before the invasion of Iraq, the United States was more secure than the Bush administration would have had us believe. Because of the occupation of Iraq, the genuine threats we face may be multiplied more than most Americans recognize. The removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime has yielded some positive dividends, but a comprehensive reckoning suggests that this war of choice has been a blunder that carries with it real costs for our national security.
Saddam’s regime posed less of a threat than the administration claimed because, as now seems clear, Baghdad had abandoned its weapons of mass destruction sometime after 1998. More importantly, as I and others have argued, Baghdad had no substantive, cooperative relationship with al Qaeda. Thus, the threat that the Bush administration made paramount in its case for war was by no means imminent. It was simply not the case that “Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group,” as President Bush argued in October 2002. Slaying a chimera does not make you safer.
Even if the regime could have reconstituted its weapons of mass destruction programs in the future — given the surreal goings-on in Saddam’s court, an unlikely development — it is hard to imagine that the Iraqi leadership would have changed course and handed over such weapons to jihadists. Saddam was deterred; he knew he would face an obliterating response if his fingerprints were found on a WMD terrorist attack, as they inevitably would have been.
From a moral perspective, we can congratulate ourselves on ending the reign of a vicious tyrant, but that is not the same as strengthening American security. His fall meant the elimination of the world’s third most active state sponsor of terror — Iran and Syria have far bloodier records. This is welcome, but it needs to be put in context. Recognizing the high risk of detection, Saddam had not attempted an attack on Americans since the failed 1993 plot to assassinate former president George H.W. Bush in Kuwait. State sponsors of terrorism are not nearly as dangerous as such non-state groups as al Qaeda, which are undeterrable and uncontainable.
America’s security might have benefited more from the removal of Saddam’s regime if there had been serious planning for the occupation. Instead, as the bombings of Shiite holy sites and the killing of newly trained police continues, CIA analysts are warning that Iraq could be headed for civil war.
The emergence of a Lebanon in Mesopotamia would not just be a bad outcome; it would be disastrous. In a fractured, ungovernable state, jihadists would be able to re-create the sanctuary they lost in Afghanistan, allowing them to train the next generation of terrorists. War between the Shiite majority and Sunni minority would shake the Muslim world, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, states whose stability is essential for prosecuting the war on terrorism. One of the greatest benefits of the war in Iraq was that it changed the security calculus in the Persian Gulf. This has allowed for the withdrawal of American troops from Saudi Arabia, which the kingdom’s rulers had insisted was necessary before they could tackle needed internal reforms. It would be an unwelcome surprise if a new internal threat to stability emerged now that the external one is gone.
Iraq may yet stabilize, but that is the less likely outcome. The more probable future we face will not be the happy tumbling of autocratic dominoes in the region and flowering of democracy that top administration officials and neoconservatives predicted.
This is but one area in which the Bush administration’s planning for the war in Iraq and its aftermath appears to have focused only on best-case scenarios. Another was the effect that this “second stage” of the war on terror would have on jihadists themselves. Although the United States has made surprisingly good progress in dismantling al Qaeda, for extremists the invasion of Iraq was a welcome event. It has allowed radicals to claim that their arguments about the United States — that it seeks to occupy Muslim lands and destroy Islam — have been confirmed. They are doing so now, and polling data from Arab and Muslim countries suggests they are making significant inroads with this accusation. If one accepts that a primary counterterrorism goal is to delegitimate the jihadist ideology and prevent more Muslims from embracing it, funding its soldiers and joining their ranks, the invasion of Iraq was a big step in the wrong direction.
The war also has given terrorists a new “field of jihad.” It is, as we have seen, much easier to attack American military personnel, civilian administrators and contractors who are now in close proximity than it would be to attack increasingly secure American embassies and military assets around the world. We have, in short, brought the targets to the killers.
The violence undermines Iraqi reconstruction and with it American prestige. Jihadists are now appealing to others in the Muslim world to come fight the occupation, much as an earlier generation fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. There has been maddeningly little good intelligence on the identities of those attacking U.S. forces, Shiites and the Iraqis who work with the Americans. But the high number of suicide attacks suggests that jihadists from inside or outside Iraq are playing a major role.
There are other costs to our occupation that need tallying as well. The hundreds of billions of dollars, a fraction of which might have been well spent on genuine reform programs in the Arab world or securing weapons of mass destruction in Russia. Our weakened deterrent posture in places such as the Korean peninsula, due to an overstretched military. And then, of course, there are the deaths of more than 550 U.S. soldiers. These surely represent no contribution to America’s national security.
Daniel Benjamin, a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, served as director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council staff in 1998-1999. He is co-author, with Steven Simon, of “The Age of Sacred Terror” (Random House, 2002).