When confronted with an overwhelming body of evidence suggesting that insurgents are gaining power and self-sufficiency in Iraq, there are a number of ways to react. An increasingly popular reaction is to determine that the Iraq War is unwinnable, and conclude that America must disengage from the conflict. But there is another conclusion to be drawn: Islamic terrorists are most pernicious foes.
Such a declaration may come across as stating the obvious, but as we move further from Sept. 11 without an attack, and as the price of war in blood and treasure grows, more Americans will conclude that fighting terrorism is not worth the cost. In a new book, Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them, John Mueller argues that Americans have an exaggerated view of the terrorist threat. “The capacity of al-Qaeda or of any similar group to do damage in the United States pales in comparison to the capacity other dedicated enemies, particularly international communism, have possessed in the past,” Mueller writes.
This idea — that Islamists have limited military capacity so therefore the threat they pose to us is being exaggerated — is not restricted to Mueller. In an October cover story for the American Conservative entitled “Size Matters,” Gregory Cochran wrote of al-Qaeda:
We’re talking about a group with at most thousands of active members worldwide, with little money and no industrial base, an organization that doesn’t possess a single tank or fighter plane or long-range missile. Countries that nobody has even heard of — does Burkina Faso ring a bell? — have more raw military power than al-Qaeda.
In September, Newsweek‘s Fareed Zakaria dismissed comparisons between Nazi Germany and contemporary Iran by contrasting their relative military strength. “At the time, Germany had the world’s second largest industrial base and its mightiest army….Iran does not even rank among the top 20 economies in the world…America’s annual defense outlay is more than 100 times Iran’s.”
The points made by these authors would be valid if the threat posed by radical Islam were a conventional one, but because the threat is asymmetric, economic and military advantages become less important. Yes, al-Qaeda may have limited resources, but it still managed to kill 3,000 civilians on American soil — something neither Nazi Germany, nor the Soviet Union, managed to do. Yes, Iran may be our economic and military inferior, but it has still tremendously complicated our efforts in Iraq and financed terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas to gain a foothold in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Should Americans leave Iraq, Iran’s influence will extend in a direct line from Tehran to Beirut — and that’s before its nuclear program produces a bomb (despite our tremendous economic and military superiority, it’s a program whose advancement we have been unable to prevent).
Meanwhile, the news reports on Iraq have been getting increasingly grim. The New York Times on Sunday disclosed a U.S. government report that determined that the Iraqi insurgency has become self-sufficient, raising $70 million to $200 million a year from illegal activities such as kidnapping, oil smuggling and counterfeiting. “If the $200 million a year estimate is close to the mark,” according to the Times, “it amounts to less than what it costs the Pentagon, with an $8 billion monthly budget for Iraq, to sustain the American war effort here for a single day.” Tuesday’s Washington Post reported on a classified Marine Corps intelligence report concluding that “U.S. and Iraqi troops ‘are no longer capable of defeating the insurgency in al-Anbar.'”
It’s an unfortunate sign of our times that the debate over the last few years has been about when to withdraw from Iraq rather than how we can adapt our tactics to more effectively fight an asymmetric threat. Critics of the Iraq invasion may respond that not only has the war been a distraction from fighting terrorism, but it has created terrorists. However, this does not change the reality that in the long run, America will have to figure out a way to effectively fight an offensive war against terrorist groups.
Those who argue that the threat is overblown may respond that the difficulty of fighting insurgents in Iraq has nothing to do with whether terrorists are able to carry out attacks within the United States. However, if Americans conclude from our experiences in Iraq (and Afghanistan) that fighting an offensive war against terrorism is futile, we will be forced to return to the old defensive strategy of fighting terrorism. By treating terrorism as a manageable threat, America sat back for decades as terrorists pulled off attacks with increasing frequency, boldness, and sophistication.
Islamists may not have the economy of Nazi Germany, or the military capacity of the Soviet Union, but given America’s recent experiences, it would be dangerous for us to underestimate them once again.
Philip Klein is a reporter for The American Spectator.