Listening to the reaction last week from pundits, press and politicians to the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group report, you would think the judgment of history had now been rendered upon the United States' invasion of Iraq. All around the world, commentators gladly took to writing "failed policy" on George Bush's tombstone; and those who had stood in opposition, like soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, were feeling "vindicated."
Underscored by the ISG's bleak assessment, the reality is that Bush has done more since 9/11 to facilitate the long-term objectives of worldwide jihadists than any al-Qaeda operative could have accomplished without America's unwitting complicity. By the misapplication of military force, and failure to exercise constructive leadership on political, diplomatic, economic, cultural and other fronts, Bush has contributed enormously toward giving solidarity to a diverse number of Islamic-affiliated "terrorist organizations" or resistance movements, and ensuring their continued viability for a generation to come.
Bush has claimed initiative in the "War on Terror," launching his artillery "over there, so we don't have to fight them here," but the "grave and deteriorating" results enumerated by the Iraq Study Group imply that the enemy has, in a sense, been in the driver's seat all along. America's current entanglements enabled the Iranian newspaper Resalat to say, "The recent incidents in Lebanon in addition to what is happening in Iraq prove that the people in the region want to cleanse the Middle East of foreigners' interference." This Iranian viewpoint is self-serving, and does not necessarily reflect the full reality; but it is also an indication of how far events have spiraled out of control since Bush took the bait put forward by al-Qaeda, and succeeded in opening multiple fronts in his ill-defined "war."
Because of America's misdirected aggression, "the enemy" has metastasized. Even if the intentions behind the invasion of Iraq were "noble," as George Bush would like us to believe, the overwhelming perception in the Middle East is that American interests in the region are, by definition, imperialist adventurism. As a result, the intifada against American hegemony instigated by al-Qaeda has raised a banner for the defense of Islam that has ultimately been taken up by a Middle Eastern majority worldview, as well as an array of surrogate actors.
Even if al-Qaeda now ceased to exist, bin Laden would remain the godfather of all that Iran, Hezbollah, the Taliban, Hamas, the Mahdi Army, the Badr Brigade and the Sunni insurgency (to name a few) are doing to prove the demonstrated limits of American power.
In this regard, al-Qaeda has successfully implemented one of the basic goals of its overall strategy. This has occurred, not in spite of Bush's efforts, but directly because of the bungling ineptitude with which he has managed the entire affair. Notwithstanding limited effectiveness with some measures, the main thrust of the "War on Terror" has exemplified a fundamental misunderstanding of the aims of the enemy and the nature of the conflict; but even many undertakings that offered promise have been, at best, incoherently pursued.
This is not to say that al-Qaeda is the ruling clique among "the enemy." These factions do not necessarily have common objectives; and al-Qaeda itself may have little status with them. Indeed, throughout the Arab world, the indiscriminate, insensate violence employed by al-Qaeda against Iraqi civilians, including many children, to undermine acceptance of American presence in Iraq has earned disaffection not unlike the feeling about American and Israeli brutality. The sheer barbarism of internet-televised beheadings has not been received as righteous entertainment by all; and deliberate incitement of sectarian warfare in Iraq has not won universal praise, to say the least.
Many Arabs might agree that Iraq has been a microcosm reflecting the global "War on Terror": an arena for the contest between two demonic forces holding the whole world hostage. The inhumanly ruthless, destabilizing assaults by al-Qaeda have been evilly matched by the maniacal delusion of George Bush.
But Bush is the one who has wielded the power to sow destruction on a cataclysmic scale. Far from eliminating the terrorist threat, his actions have magnified and amplified the horror. Resistance has fed on his momentum, twisted his effect, locking the United States, al-Qaeda, several neighboring countries and numerous indigenous competitors in a vicious power struggle - the shared sectarian dissection of Iraq.
Obviously, not all aspects of this situation are peaches and roses for al-Qaeda. Though weak and besieged, two fledgling democracies have supplanted the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. But the cost in blood and treasure, and the loss of honor and goodwill has meant a weakening of America, too.
Whether, in the end, the beneficiary is al-Qaeda, or some other party, matters little. The speaker may be Iranian, but the message concurs.
At the very least, it is time for Americans to look at the cause-and-effect of their own actions - not merely Iraq, but the entire global footprint of the "War on Terror."
To start with, if there is a false premise in al-Qaeda's crusade against the United States that depends upon a militant interpretation of Islam, there is very little in the American response that would serve to invalidate it. American and Israeli disregard for life, liberty and property of innocent people in the way of their invasions, and indications of corruption in American motives, engender mainstream Islamic acceptance of guerrilla resistance, even among many who may not be inclined to join the jihadist cause.
Whether this will ultimately displace more moderate, enlightened views is becoming almost a moot point, as the destructiveness of American retaliation since 9/11 continually gives legitimacy to the actions of those who justify violence in the name of Allah.
Though it redounds less to support for al-Qaeda's global ferment than to localized religious militias or "non-state actors," this widespread approval has been helping to ignite a pan-Arab revolutionary movement in the Middle East, and inflame a global Islamic uprising.
"The recent incidents in Lebanon" referred to in Iranian propaganda are a case in point. In Henry Kissinger's words, Hezbollah's rising popularity evidences a growing propensity "to overcome the millennia-old split between Sunnis and Shia on the basis of hatred for Israel and America."
This has not refuted the American democratic experiment or its global implications; but the movement of history has been lending strength to the Islamist cause.
Whether this is intrinsically true is a curious question, since the process has been aided and abetted by George Bush; but only to the extent that he has been in fundamental disagreement with law, logic, democratic values and moral principles.
This may seem to be a misplaced charge to level against the architect of two newly minted democracies. But leaving aside entirely a domestic agenda that seems to prefer military to civilian authority at almost every turn, the expression of Bush's democratizing strategy invites a question of whether, after all, there is anyone in the U.S. State Department who understands what democracy is, or knows how to build one. There is not much discernible reinforcement to the idea that Bush has been listening to anyone with genuine insight in either instance.
Iraq is a self-evident example of what happens when the President is a bully. Theodore Roosevelt's adage has been updated by the Bush doctrine: "Mumble incoherently, and torture your enemies in secret."
And Afghanistan is notable chiefly as an unfinished project that the Bush administration has shown a definite lack of capability to secure. Indeed, if the results are an indication, America's mission in Afghanistan was never about nation-building. Rather, Afghanistan was a theater for the acquisition of political capital - a means for Bush to gain the power to impose his will on other situations.
It appears very much (as many have reported) as if Bush came to office with his sights already set on Iraq, and Afghanistan merely served him as a stepping-stone. Bush has not taken significant advantage of the opportunity for accomplishment that has existed there. The West now finds itself compelled to invest in something it is almost unwilling to continue, because it was never the real aim; and America now finds itself in the shadow of multiple catastrophes, because the "War on Terror," for George Bush, has been less about defeating bin Laden than inflating himself.
In the five years since 9/11, in the name of democracy, Bush has undertaken a kind of rebellion against the progress of global democracy, epitomized by his disregard for the imprimatur of the United Nations. No one should doubt that his wake has left a lasting mark against the strength of that institution, and no small injury to respect for international law.
Bush has given a false adherence to the appearance of democracy, while subverting democratic purposes in favor of autocratic, authoritarian rule. Only the power of the American electorate to utter decisive rejection has shown the possibility of teaching him what democracy really means.
Beyond the strategic recommendations and sometimes cautiously phrased judgments embodied in the Iraq Study Group report, therefore, there is an implied indictment: as a consequence of the deceptive leadership of George Bush, the fringe movement represented by al-Qaeda has become the spiritual foundation - "the base," exactly as translated - of a new pan-Arab mobilization, with Iran and Hezbollah at the head. The radical purpose dedicated by a few thousand individuals has, finally, linked with the divergent interests of a multitude of players, to assume the gravity of an effective counterweight to American attempts at regional domination, feeding the emergence of a new balance of power in the Middle East.
For all of these reasons, the Iraq Study Group report does not go far enough; and because it is addressed specifically toward finding "a new way forward" in Iraq, it misses the mark completely.
The fact is that while there was no meaningful relationship between Saddam Hussein and the activities of al-Qaeda before 2003, the U.S. occupation of Iraq is an intrinsic component of the Bush administration policy headlined the "War on Terror."
And unless there is recognition of the flaws inherent in the larger policy, of which Iraq is part and parcel, there is, truly, no "new way forward" in Iraq.
The failure to consciously make this connection, and bring a comprehensive perspective to the problems created by George Bush means that we are in for a time of confusion. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are ever-more-stridently calling for immediate, drastic changes in order to satisfy a domestic political agenda, without any respect for the full ramifications of their demands; while Bush, who must bear the responsibility of decision, is not likely to bend very much unless he sees possible progress within his limited concept of the "War on Terror."
The bridge across this gulf may be in the person of newly appointed Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who takes office with an extraordinary mandate to influence the direction of America's role in the world. But since neither side in the current debate is able to perceive the real nature of the crisis, we are likely to see only piecemeal success, halting progress, half-measures and more missteps - positive movement, but not enough to dissolve the quagmire.
However, as an antidote to the delusional certainty imposed by a dictatorially-minded White House and a lockstep Congress during the past six years, confusion is a profoundly healthy state for America. It is the beginning of wisdom, and the faint introduction of possibility for genuine solutions to emerge.
It is, I think, the most hopeful sign that has appeared in America since 9/11. By the one-two punch of Midterm Election blues - voters made anxious by the weakening of the nation - followed by a sharply-targeted bipartisan critique that comes near to an open declaration that the centerpiece of Bush's wartime ambition is unwinnable by military means, strong leadership has been given the foundation to speak out in opposition to the President's policies.
The hallmark of Bush's term until now has been the squelching of debate, with taut domination of Congress and the media, so that almost the only effective voices heard besides the administration have been straw men stood up for rhetorical purposes - stay-the-course versus cut-and-run.
Now, suddenly, we are awash with options, competing voices, alternative plans, more and more nuanced interpretations, a readiness to listen, and perhaps, an ability to hear.
If nothing else, the recommendation to include the Israel-Palestine conflict as part of the equation, attempting to approach the Iraq mess as part of a broader Middle East strategy, offers an invitation to retrace our steps, and find the point, shortly after September 11th, 2001, where Bush led the country down a wrong turn.
Not until we reach that point - not until we remember what America really stands for - not until we realize what there is in our Constitution, our values and our heritage that is worth affirming as a gift to the whole world, can a new patriotic consensus begin to emerge that will guide us in the fight against anti-democratic forces, of which al-Qaeda is but one.