Some historians have an exercise they like to engage in that involves analysis to identify the one watershed event that necessarily triggered a series of bigger world shaping and perhaps even cataclysmic events. Many such historians identify the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand as such a moment, one that defined the rest of the 20th century. They reason, without the assassination, World War I doesnt happen, without World War I, there is not the necessary pressure in Czarist Russia that results in the formation of the Soviet Union and there is no treaty of Versailles and no harsh treatment of Germany afterwards. Without the harsh treatment of Germany, there is no rise of Hitler and Nazism. Without the rise of Hitler and Nazism, there is no World War II and no Holocaust and without World War II and the Holocaust, there is no rise of both the United States and the former Soviet Union to Superpower status afterwards, and there is no creation of the state of Israel and the ensuing issues in the Middle East.
The trick is to identify such a potentially telling point in history when it happens or perhaps for a leader to know when to avoid making a decision that would result in a series of horrible world events. I believe we have witnessed a point/decision that will prove to be the genesis of a political tsunami that will threaten western civilization as we know it. The date was March 20th, 2003 and the event was the beginning of the Iraq war.
Up until the Anglo-American governments decided to invade Iraq, world opinion was decidedly in favor of the United States and against radical Islamic Fundamentalism. The attacks of 911 horrified people around the globe and this includes countries like Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In fact, had the United States not invaded Iraq, 911 would have proved a disastrous failure for Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. As I said, 9/11 was an event that united the entire world in support of the United States. No one questioned our right to target the specific elements behind that attack. Even those of my friends on the left who are normally anti-war and anti-violence in virtually every other circumstance I can remember stood with the President in targeting Al-Qaeda training camps and their supporters, the Taliban, in Afghanistan.
So far, at least with the above paragraph, I doubt Ive told anyone anything they dont already know. But to understand why the Iraq war is such an important event and, in fact, why it is such a terrible mistake, one needs to understand a lot about the goals of bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, things that most Westerners really dont know much about. In addition to getting the US out of the Middle East, and other small and interim goals, the ultimate goal of Al-Qaeda is a return to the Caliphate, that is, a Caliphate centered on a rigid interpretation of Islam. The Caliphate was a vast Islamic empire around the end of the first millennium AD that stretched from Spain and North Africa all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Many practitioners regard the Caliphate as the glory days of Islam. The idea of a new Caliphate has become popular in some Middle Eastern and other Islamic circles, but particularly among Sunni and Wahabi Islamic movements. Al Qaeda seeks to exploit the Nationalistic fervor among Islamic fundamentalists into both a desire for a creation of a new Caliphate in all the farthest countries and regions of its former greatest expansion and a willingness to fight a war and potentially die to further this goal.
They intend to engineer a world war between the West on one side, (primarily championed of course by the United States) and believers of Islam on the other. Please note that I said believers of Islam on the other and did not specify countries or nation states. Islam is practiced by more than 1.6 Billion people around the world, primarily concentrated in North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.
Some 60-70 countries have 50% or more inhabitants who identify themselves as Moslem and some 100+ countries have very sizeable Islamic minorities. It may seem suicide for Al-Qaeda to even contemplate a war against a powerful and nuclear-enabled United States, but consider Vietnam and consider the current conflict in Iraq. If it is hard for the United States to win wars against insurgent movements in one small country at a time, how would the United States be able to deal with a larger conflict that spans several dozen countries?
Let us return to where we left off on Afghanistan. 9/11, and even after we went into Afghanistan in its aftermath, resulted in the entire world, including the vast majority of Moslems and predominantly Islamic countries supporting the United States. In fact, if we had left it at that, 9/11 would have turned out to be one of the worst strategic mistakes Al-Qaeda could have made. Then something happened that changed the whole equation. 911 was used as justification to attack Iraq. This has turned out to be exactly the overreach and overreaction for which Bin Laden was hoping.
To completely explain why the invasion of Iraq had some of the effects Al-Qaeda was hoping for, I need to digress again momentarily. Besides the US and the West and, of course, Israel, bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda have another group of countries they absolutely hate. Those countries are those with predominantly Islamic inhabitants, but secular governments. This is completely against what Al-Qaeda is attempting to achieve and is a particular source of irritation to them. Countries in this category are Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan and, until we invaded, Iraq.
What the American people were sold regarding coordination between Iraq and Al-Qaeda was a complete fabrication.
Iraq and Al-Qaeda (that is also to say, Saddam and bin-Laden) hated each other. Saddam spent most of his reign suppressing the practitioners of fundamentalist Islam in his country and ensuring that they had no hold on power whatsoever. This is one of the reasons he was our guy in the Middle East for nearly two decades. We completely supported him in his war against Islamic fundamentalist Iran, and when he invaded Kuwait, he actually asked us before hand if it was OK to do so. Of course, the request was in diplomatic parlance, as was the response, and this miscommunication probably caused the war insomuch that if we had understood what was being asked, and our ambassador to Iraq made it clear we vehemently opposed such an action, I and many others strongly believe Saddam would not have invaded Kuwait. But I digress. Iraq and Al-Qaeda hated each other, and had no cooperation or coordination on ANYTHING, let alone 9/11. It should be clear from this paper that their goals are completely different. In fact, we now know that the CIAs foremost informant on Iraq-Al Qaeda cooperation has said that this was a lie. See this article.
Let me now repeat something I stated above before I continue: They (Al Qaeda) intend to convince these people (Moslems) that the United States hates Moslems, indiscriminately kills Moslems and seizes the land and belongings of Moslems without reason or for manufactured reasons and because of this, Moslems around the world need to unite and fight us.
Up until the lead up to the war on Iraq, the world's Moslems had little reason to believe bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda. Then Bush started talking about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. None were found. Bush talked about coordination between Iraq and Al-Qaeda, the Moslem world who understand what Al-Qaeda are trying to do, and know the antipathy between Iraq and Al-Qaeda, knew this to be nonsense. But, they saw the United States invade Iraq anyway. They saw the news reports and pictures of dead and maimed Iraqi citizens, many more pictures than we got to see in the United States, in fact. They know about the allegations that the US wants Iraqi oil. They heard about the tortures at Abu Ghraib even though part of our war justification was that Saddam was torturing his people. They now have heard that we used White Phosphorus in our attack on Fallujah.
Depending on exactly how it is used, and the nuance here is a bit vague, White Phosphorus can be classified as a chemical weapon. The irony is probably apparent but I am going to state it anyway. We supposedly went to war because Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction including Chemical weapons. They didnt, but now it can be said that that the Anglo-American allies used Chemical Weapons against Iraqis in this war. It should now be obvious that the Iraq war is turning out to be a terrible mistake, but it gets worse. According to a report by the BBC, a study by the International Institute for Strategic Studies has reported that the Iraq war has resulted in an unbelievable upsurge in Al-Qaeda recruitment (See also this Time Magazine article ). What better recruiting poster could bin-Laden have asked for than tens and hundreds of thousands of dead and maimed Iraqi civilians plastered all over television in a war whose goals are terribly questionable at best and a war that we have waged awkwardly and at times arguably criminally? To make matters even worse, various western intelligence agencies have also reported that Al Qaeda is using Iraq as a training ground for insurgents. They send recruits to Iraq for a few months to learn from the Iraqi insurgents how to fight guerilla warfare and then they return to Afghanistan or whatever their country of origin.
Because of the Iraq war, my perception is that many Moslems believe Al Qaeda has made their argument that the West hates Moslems. This war has been such a disaster that I began to believe that a watershed event had happened that could not be turned back. I thought it may take a few years, but the situation would eventually deteriorate into a larger conflict, one that the west very well might lose. Then, just like the United States and the west did with Iraq, Al Qaeda overreached. They attacked Jordan with suicide bombings. The outrage in Jordan has been palpable. The attack, organized by Al-Zarqawi who is originally from Jordan, has resulted in Al-Zarqawi being publicly denounced and disowned by over sixty members of his family there. It remains to be seen if this mistake by Al-Qaeda can stop what appears to me to be strong momentum toward a global conflict.
Whether or not a regional or global conflict occurs in its aftermath, it is clear that enough thought and concern was not put into whether or not it should be fought. The current President Bushs father as well as President Clinton did not share this lack of concern. Both former Presidents led attacks on Iraq, but stopped well short of a complete invasion because they feared destabilizing the country and the region. If history teaches us anything, it is that major events such as wars often have unintended and far reaching consequences. Leaders that do not adequately share the concerns for these consequences put their countries and the world in peril.