The Washington Times

Is U.S. policy “a recruiting poster for al Qaeda”? Did the Iraq invasion itself, as well as the occupation and now the ongoing U.S. presence, only serve to make terrorists out of a larger number (albeit still a tiny fraction) of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims – and perhaps more worrying, terrorist sympathizers out of some significant multiple of that? Are we, accordingly, only playing into the terrorists’ hands? Last week in this space, we considered the question of whether the U.S. presence in Iraq was having the perverse effect of creating more terrorists. I argued that the question seems to be connected with the question of the affinity of al Qaeda for the Saddam regime. Although most opponents of the war tend to answer that the current situation is indeed creating more terrorists, they also tend to dismiss the notion of any affinity between Islamism and the secular Baathist regime of Saddam. Supporters of the war tend to answer each question the opposite way.

Yet it seems to me that logically, answering yes to both or no to both makes more sense. I come down on the yes side. Notwithstanding that the insurgency in Iraq is reportedly marked by increasing division between Ba’athist holdouts and the Islamists, the fact is that the Islamist “foreign fighters” got a sufficiently warm welcome in Sunni Iraq to establish themselves as a serious obstacle, difficult to root out. That, in turn, buttresses the case that Saddam’s Iraq was relatively friendly territory for al Qaeda (which is not, to be sure, evidence that Iraq was involved in the September 11 attacks).

So, it is at least plausible that, in response to U.S. policy since September 11, especially Iraq, more young Muslim men are being radicalized to an extent that they are willing to engage in jihad-inspired terror up to being willing to blow themselves up. To some, this means it is self-evidently the case that U.S. policy is counterproductive. I don’t think so. I think we need to look seriously at the question of whether or not increased recruitment to the Islamist cause at the present moment and under current conditions is as bad as other likely alternatives.

I would like to live in a world in which Islamist terrorism is something people don’t have to worry about very much, if at all – about on a par, say, of some kook deciding to blow up a federal building. I also think that’s an achievable goal. Certain elements within Islam will have to yield to the elements of Islamic faith that value all human life, whether Muslim or not. This will take some time, but the forces driving the modern, liberal world have ground down Christian religious warriors, monarchies, Russian Communism, the Nazis and Japanese militarism, among other manifestations of politics at its nastiest, and Osama bin Laden is at worst a comparable problem. It would be agreeable if, when my children are old, Islamist terror is only a memory.

The difficulty, as I see it, is that merely ceasing to aggravate the problem (if that were truly possible) would not solve the problem, but delay its solution. I am unprepared to accept a bargain, that, for example, divided the world into two spheres of influence, one belonging to radical Islam and one to the rest of us. It would be an abominable betrayal of the idea of freedom, for starters. And as a practical matter, I don’t see how you could work out peace terms that wouldn’t entail ceding back such formerly “Muslim territory” as Spain and Israel. Finally, I wouldn’t trust bin Laden with a pair of garden shears, let alone what half the world could buy or make. You think we have a conflict on our hands now? Try giving these guys the power of an imperial state and nuclear weapons.

Moreover, we tried (albeit perhaps not consciously) a cooler approach to the problem, i.e., we pretty much ignored it. True, that approach was uncoupled from dramatic gestures of appeasement (of the sort that would be politically impossible at home and unlikely to appease anyway). But that approach only got us as far as September 11.

We are provoking what we are provoking because we are seriously confronting the Islamists for the first time. And I think now is a good time to do that, first because we are strong and they are not, second because in engaging as we are, we are encouraging a necessary debate within Islam.

It is facile to say, as some like to, that those who have taken up jihad would have done so anyway. In a different world, they might well not have. But such a world would be unacceptable on Islamist terms, even if we could get to it. And our biggest problem is not the suiciders but those who propagandize them and train them for the task. We need to get to them. And the sooner, alas, the better.