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Is Bush al-Qaeda's 'Useful Idiot'?

By Robert Parry
August 26, 2005

If Western intelligence agencies are right – that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the two-year-plus military occupation have been recruiting boons for Islamic terrorism – why is it logical to commit American troops to an indefinite deployment there? Won’t that just create more terrorists?

Put differently, has George W. Bush’s Iraq policy done more to help than hurt al-Qaeda, from Bush’s hasty decision to redirect U.S. military assets from Afghanistan to Iraq while Osama bin-Laden was still at large, to the loose talks about an American “crusade,” to supplanting Iraq’s secular government with one favoring Islamic fundamentalism?

In the 1980s, when I was covering the wars in Central America, neoconservative theorists liked to call U.S. peace activists “useful idiots” because their opposition to the hard-line Reagan administration was seen as unwittingly aiding and abetting communists and other leftist enemies. In that vein, is Bush now al-Qaeda’s “useful idiot”?

These questions are relevant today because Bush is again making clear his determination to “stay the course” in Iraq. He is rejecting the advice of some military strategists and a few political leaders that a wiser course might be for the United States to begin a phased withdrawal from the war-ravaged country.

In a speech in Idaho on Aug. 24, Bush rejected that idea, saying it would play into the hands of Islamic terrorists who “want us to retreat.”

“An immediate withdrawal of our troops from Iraq, or the broader Middle East, as some have called for, would only embolden the terrorists and create a staging ground to launch more attacks against America and free nations,” Bush said. “So long as I’m the president, we will stay, we will fight, and we will win the war on terror.”

Dubious Claims

Bush also repeated some of his dubious assertions about the cause of Islamic terrorism. For instance, Bush said, “our enemies murder because they despise our freedom and our way of life,” though intelligence experts have long concluded that the dominant goal of al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists is to drive Western forces and influence out of the Middle East.

It’s not hatred of “our way of life” that motivates most Islamic extremists, but rather a perception that the West is threatening “their way of life.” While there have been violent strikes against the West, such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and Washington, Islamic fundamentalists generally see their struggle as defensive.

So, when Bush prescribes an offensive strategy – “to go after the terrorists where they live … until the terrorists have nowhere to run and nowhere to hide” – his projection of U.S. power into the Islamic world not only portends a virtually endless war but has the detrimental effect of reinforcing the arguments that Islamic extremists use to recruit impressionable young people to terrorism.

For that reason, some observers see the current dynamic as a vicious cycle – an escalating pattern of tit-for-tat violence with both sides nursing grievances bathed in blood. More cynical analysts go further, seeing a symbiotic relationship in which Bush and bin-Laden – whether wittingly or not – serve each other’s political needs.

At home, Bush and his right-wing allies have used the American fear of Islamic terrorism to consolidate political control. Among Muslims, bin-Laden and al-Qaeda have exploited their battle against the world’s superpower to transform themselves from a marginal – albeit dangerous – organization into an international force attracting thousands of recruits in the defense of Islam.

For their part, al-Qaeda’s leaders get international standing as warriors for the faith – rather than their deserved notoriety as thugs killing innocents – while the Bush administration gets to reorganize the United States along the authoritarian lines of a nation at war. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s Grimmer Vision.”]

‘Godfather’ Scene

Soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Bush recognized that a targeted assault on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan would be too remote and too limited for his elevation to the pedestal of heroic “war president.” Bush quickly turned his gaze toward Iraq, according to accounts by former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke and author Bob Woodward.

So, even though Iraq’s Saddam Hussein wasn’t tied to Sept. 11, Bush and his neoconservative advisers perceived the political advantage of expanding the fight against al-Qaeda into a broader war against U.S. adversaries in the Middle East.

Like a climatic scene from a “Godfather” movie, Bush and his neocon capos seized on the Sept. 11 attacks as an excuse to settle the Bush “family accounts,” which included eliminating Hussein, whom Bush once called “the guy who tried to kill my dad.”  

But Bush’s revenge-driven invasion didn’t achieve the finality that some expected. Though Saddam Hussein was captured and his two sons were slain, the invasion of Iraq wasn’t the “cakewalk” among grateful Iraqis that some on Bush’s foreign-policy team had predicted.

Rather than accept U.S. occupation, thousands of Iraqis – especially from the nation’s Sunni minority – picked up guns and began making bombs to kill Americans. Thousands of foreign jihadists also slipped into Iraq to battle the Western invaders, often by becoming suicide bombers.

Soon, a full-fledged insurgency was underway with hundreds of American soldiers dying along with thousands of Iraqis, both civilians and combatants. Amid the chaos, American diplomats were caught up in the kind of complex “nation-building” that candidate Bush had vowed to avoid when he was seeking the presidency in 2000.

Yet, even as events in Iraq spun out of control, Bush and his political advisers found the “war on terror” a useful device for restructuring the U.S. government, redirecting tax money to friendly corporations, and reframing the American concept of civil liberties to give Bush the unbridled power to imprison anyone he deems an “enemy combatant.”

Bush also could count on legions of right-wing supporters to denounce domestic critics as “traitors,” obsessed with “blaming America” and guilty of violating the edict to “support the troops.” In this poisonous climate, most Democratic politicians and mainstream pundits shied away from any sustained criticism of Bush’s war policies.

Hart’s Advice

Former Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., observed this phenomenon in an Aug. 24 op-ed column for the Washington Post, entitled “Who Will Say ‘No More’?”

Hart urged Democratic leaders to admit they were deceived by Bush into supporting the Iraq War and ask forgiveness from the military families that have suffered. Then, the Democrats should give speeches explaining why the conflict is hurting American security, how the nation must move toward energy independence, and “what we and our allies can do to dry up the jihadists’ swamp,” Hart wrote.

“The real defeatists today are not those protesting the war,” Hart continued. “The real defeatists are those in power and their silent supporters in the opposition party who are reduced to repeating ‘Stay the course’ even when the course, whatever it now is, is light years away from the one originally undertaken.

“The truth is we’re way off course. We’ve stumbled into a hornet’s nest. We’ve weakened ourselves at home and in the world. We are less secure today than before this war began. Who now has the courage to say this?” [Washington Post, Aug. 24, 2005]

As Hart noted, many Democratic leaders either have chosen to finesse the Iraq War by quietly supporting Bush’s policies or they have tried to outflank him from the Right by demanding that he send more troops and fight to win.

Only a few senior Democrats, such as Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, have ventured so far as to suggest a phased withdrawal by the end of next year.

A commonly heard Democratic mantra on Iraq is that “failure is not an option.” But no one in Washington has made a convincing case that failure is not at least a strong possibility. Simply declaring that success must occur doesn’t mean it will. [For more on this wishful thinking, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Iraq War’s Two Constants.”]

Enduring Paradox

The enduring paradox of the Iraq War is that Bush and other U.S. leaders insist that the presence of U.S. troops is necessary to bring political stability to Iraq, yet it is the presence of those U.S. troops that has become the driving force for both foreign jihadists and Iraqi insurgents to continue inflicting havoc across Iraq.

There might have been a way out of the paradox if Sen. John Kerry had won the White House in November 2004 and had enlisted some non-Western surrogate forces to fill the void as U.S. and British troops left. But Bush’s second term precluded that possibility.

Since then, Bush has been able to sustain an anti-withdrawal consensus in Washington by arguing that U.S. troops are needed to keep Iraq from turning into a “failed state” – like Afghanistan – and thus a potential base for Islamic terrorists to strike against the United States and its allies.

“We will not allow the terrorists to establish new places of refuge in failed states from which they can recruit and train and plan new attacks on our citizens,” Bush said in his Idaho speech.

But that prediction about Iraq may be just another of Bush’s worst-case scenarios, not a likely danger. Another scenario could be that a U.S. withdrawal might improve Iraq’s chances for stability by removing the chief rallying point for Islamic extremists.

Without the American presence to incite young Muslims to strap on suicide belts, the foreign terrorist operations in Iraq might shrivel. Even the Iraqi Sunnis, whose anti-American interests now overlap with those of the foreign jihadists, might have little stomach for the civilian-butchering jihadists if the Americans were gone. The Sunnis might well revert to Hussein’s approach of ruthlessly repressing Islamic extremists.

In other words, as odd as it might seem, an American withdrawal could actually contribute to the precise result that is now the chief U.S. policy goal, preventing Iraq from becoming a haven for terrorists.

That does not mean, of course, the future of Iraq will be peaceful. The blood shed over the past two-plus years will almost certainly fuel new rounds of revenge. A civil war among the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds also remains a distinct possibility.

But the United States may have to recognize that – having opened the door to this chaos – it is the wrong party to set matters right. Sometimes, the best course of action is to step back and provide encouragement, but leave well enough alone. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Iraq & the Logic of Withdrawal.”]

Ironically, the key to resolving the Iraqi paradox might be what many families of American soldiers desperately long for already, the return of their loved ones safe and sound.

The tragedy of Iraq, however, may be that George W. Bush will insist on “staying the course,” Democratic leaders won’t dare contradict him – and the killing will go on.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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