Thursday, June 17, 2004

It Doesn't Add Up

The 9-11 Commission staff reported today (16 June) that it found no credible links between Iraq and the terrorist attacks on the United States. The conclusion is not particularly controversial. Even Republican commission members accept it. So here is more evidence of how unrelated to national security is the war in Iraq. But the war in Iraq has serious consequences for America’s security. It drains countless dollars and resources that could be used to defend this nation against terrorism. The money and lives now being sacrificed in Iraq are an expensive distraction from the real task at hand: harrassing, disrupting and destroying al-Quaeda and other terrorist groups.

But we are not really doing that. Sure, we knocked al-Quaeda out of a comfortable base in Afghanistan but the organization is still active, effective and even more decentralized. The US and its allies won the first round in Afghanistan but we did not deliver a knockout punch. Al-Quaeda’s loose organization was largely self-financed and its operatives had a great deal of independence in carrying out their missions. Eliminating this kink of threat is difficult and painstaking. It requires knowledge of organization, operations and finance, none of which we have. I heard Commissioner Lee Hamilton, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, questioning a witness about America’s knowledge of al-Quaeda’s finance, command and control. The gist of the testimony was that we know a little about the finances and virtually nothing of operations and command.

The United States has poured over $100 billion into the Iraq war, which George Bush claims to be a central front in the war on terrorism. But Iraq’s links to al-Qaeda and similar groups were always questionable; the 9-11 Commission report should put the issue to its final rest. Iraq was a threat when it invaded Kuwait but since the Gulf War it has been little more than a nusiance to the outside world. It’s role in terrorism was marginal and fleeting at best. But the administration chose to spend inordinate sums on what is a sideshow, if not complete diversion, in the fight against a real enemy who actually attacked this country both at home and overseas. I don’t get it. It seems so ineffective and wasteful.

Of course, Iraq’s “terrorist connections” were only one justification for the war. Don’t forget, Iraq was armed with weapons of mass destruction that threatened the region and the world. Except that these dangerous weapons turned out not to exist. More than a year of diligent searching by American weapons experts have found virtually no weapons of mass destruction. If the administration had not been so hell bent on invading, they might have more carefully considered the reports of the UN weapons inspectors who were not finding weapons in Iraq, even at sites identified by the US.
Again, I do not see how this war is doing anything to make America safer.

What I do see is lost opportunity. In the 33 months since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Bush administration has accomplished little to improve American security. Bush started out well, striking hard at al-Qaeda and their Taliban allies in Afghanistan. That retaliation was simple, direct and warranted. But Bush wasn’t willing to “stay the course” by pursuing al-Quaeda around the world. This would have required (and still does) learning how our enemy operates, where the money flows and what it is planning. Not easy or quickly accomplished tasks, but doable and much less costly than the invasion and occupation of Iraq. So here we are, almost three years into a war with an enemy about whom we know very little. And with the inordinate commitment of resources to Iraq, America’s ability to learn how to effectively fight international terrorism will be limited.