Notwithstanding its trippy illogic, the connection between the global war on terrorism and the Iraq war is probably here to stay. The Bush Administration first entangled these events when it seductively offered Americans the false idea that Iraq was behind the 9/11 attacks, and the possibility that turning Iraq into a beacon of secular democracy in the Middle East would quell violent Islamist extremists. The splicing of these two unrelated events into one seamless narrative continues to hold sway; as of September 8, 2007, President Bush was still maintaining that "Iraq is part of this war against extremists."
Distentangling the Iraq war from the war on terror is especially tricky in the phantasmagoria that is American foreign policy since 9/11. The willingness to entertain patent illogic at high levels led to post-9/11 fantasies of a monolithic supercharged Islamic enemy. Resulting fear and fury fueled the war on terror. In the mind-bending logic of that event, loosely connected groups with diverse motivations can find themselves elevated to international terrorist status more quickly by American legislative fiat than by their own specific actions, as Fatah Al Islam and potentially, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, have been.The war on terror was then grafted onto the executive branch hallucination that the United States could impose democracy on a traumatized state while bypassing democratic institution building.
Osama bin Laden Also Links Iraq War and Jihadist Cause
On the eve of the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the report of General Petraeus on the war in Iraq to Congress (a dual event that seems symbolic, but is actually just a sleight of scheduling), Osama bin Laden is among those who also have a stake in the idea that Iraq and terrorism should be considered together. Iraq has become a front in the war on terror not because it housed globally-minded jihadists in 2001, but because it now does--thanks to bin Laden's alleged interest in it. As White House Homeland Security Advisor, Frances Townsend, pointed out on Fox News on September 9: "...We know from Al Qaeda — intelligence that we've declassified that bin Laden watches and cares about what happens in Iraq, and he's tasked them to undertake external operations."
Decision to Topple Iraq Reflected Distorted Understanding of Terrorism after 9/11
In a way, it is easier to surmise bin Laden's potential motives for desiring a link between Iraq and the U.S. war on terror, than it is the Americans'. Bin Laden has purportedly claimed to want to tie up U.S. interests and resources in the kind of debilitating situation in which the U.S. now finds itself in Iraq in order to further his own interest in weakening the U.S.
But what binds these two events in the mind of the American administration? The lack of clarity surrounding both the Iraq war and the anti-terrorism effort have made it difficult to see. Stephen Holmes, in his briskly brilliant account of recent events The Matador's Cape: America's Reckless Response to Terror, persuasively reads the Iraq war as a reflection of the "mistaken way of seeing" terrorism that took hold of the Bush Administration after the dismantling of Al Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan.
For those critics inclined to end their critique of Administration's actions with the fact that Cheney and then Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, in particular, cynically used 9/11 to provoke a different war they wanted to have in any event, Holmes points that "criticism of the dominant players in the Administration can actually be deepened if we accept their claim that 9/11 changed the way they saw the world."
In Holmes' explanation, the small group of men who led the U.S. directly to war were plausibly in the grip of the sort of terrible, phobic anxiety that can follow deep trauma, and simultaneously the realization that "the end of deterrence" had been reached. In other words, the meaning of the Cold War's end didn't really sink in until 9/11. And when it did, the realization was a doozie: from here on in, America must understand it may be impotent in the face of an attack by international terrorists. When nuclear or biological weapons are figured into the equation, as they could be, damage on an unimaginable scale could result. Unable to confront this fearful prospect, Cheney, Rumsfeld and those around them refashioned "an impalpable enemy as a palpable enemy." In reconstructing the elusive Al Qaeda as the easily located Iraq, they soothed themselves and repressed their understanding that against some enemies, the U.S. may be helpless. In so doing, they pursued a war and an agenda in Iraq whose most awful potentialities continue to unfold, and created an ideological chimera as an enemy while ignoring the real threat posed by nuclear proliferation and conflict.