Today’s news from Iraq that “bombers and gunmen launched an apparently coordinated string of attacks against Iraqi government forces on Wednesday,” killing at least 50 people across 13 towns, provides an opportunity to reflect on one of the most dubious and, frankly, profane justifications for the Iraq war: “Taking the fight to the terrorists” — fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them here.
George W. Bush explained in 2005, while describing Iraq as “the latest battlefield in this war”:
Many terrorists who kill innocent men, women and children on the streets of Baghdad are followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania. There is only one course of action against them: to defeat them abroad before they attack us at home.
This after-the-fact justification for the war — necessary in the embarrassing absence of either WMD or any substantive Saddam-Al Qaeda relationship — eventually became known as “Flypaper Theory.” The basic idea was that a U.S. presence in Iraq would distract extremists from trying to attack America. Because, presumably, a bus ticket to Baghdad is less expensive that a plane ticket to New York. But while it’s probably true that at least some of the extremists drawn to Iraq would have attacked elsewhere, the evidence is overwhelming that, for the majority of foreign fighters in Iraq (who, in any case, represented a small minority of insurgents), the U.S. occupation of Iraq itself was the decisive factor in their radicalization and mobilization.
While it’s generally believed that Al Qaeda in Iraq no longer has the capacity to seriously threaten to collapse the government, or to elicit the level of reprisals that led to Iraq’s 2006–7 sectarian civil war, they still retain the ability, as the last few weeks have horrifically demonstrated, to launch multiple coordinated deadly attacks, reaching what General Ray Odierno referred to as an “irreducible minimum,” beyond which it’s very difficult to degrade a committed group of terrorists.
Obviously, the continued presence of a group like Al Qaeda is a really tragic state of affairs for Iraqis, who, like most people, don’t tend to enjoy it when they, their friends, or their relatives get maimed in terrorist attacks, or living in constant fear that such a thing could happen. It’s important to remember, though — especially when tempted to wax indignant over views of the effects of American policy that hurt our feelings — that luring terrorists to Iraq to blow themselves up in markets and mosques and police recruiting stations wasn’t some tragic side-effect of the Iraq war, it was in fact a stated goal of the war, one with which Iraqis will tragically have to contend for some time to come. This, as much as anything, is George W. Bush’s legacy in Iraq.