While the Iraq War is increasingly referred to as a civil war between Sunni and Shiite factions by news outlets, analysts and others, President Bush and some members of his administration maintain that the violence is, rather, an Al Qaida plot.
Why does President Bush maintain in the face of mounting disagreement that Al Qaeda, which is to say, terrorists, are the source of rising violence in Iraq?
It has become rotely repeated at this point that the President wants the troops to stay in Iraq, "until the mission is complete," and that an increasing number Americans want them to come home now.
The explanation on the tip of most tongues relates to the American struggle over troop withdrawal. Those who want to explain the war as a civil war intuit that if Americans grasp that the war in Iraq is between Iraqis and Iraqis, rather than Americans and terrorists, they will increase pressure on the Administration to withdraw U.S. troops. After all, why have Americans fight what sounds like someone else's war?
(The troops themselves, by the way, often have a more nuanced view. Clearly, there are various viewpoints among enlisted men and women, but many are angry about the poorly planned mission on which they were sent during former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's watch, as well as the policies that underwrote it, but also feel that they and the U.S. are obligated to remain and keep Iraq from complete collapse.)
President Bush's World view focused through the Iraq war The question remains, though. Why does the president cling so powerfully to the claim that Al Qaida is fueling violence in Iraq? Answer: it supports not only Bush's aim to keep troops in Iraq, but also his broader vision of a world embroiled in mortal combat between good and evil, democracy and extremism.
Let's look at what he said on November 28, in response to Jordanian King Abdullah's remark that Iraq may be the third civil war in the region, to be added to Lebanese conflict and strife between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Bush tied the three conflicts together in a different way: He said recent strife in Lebanon and the heated up Israeli-Palestinian dispute are, like Iraq, the result of extremists trying to choke democratic progress.
When you see a young democracy beginning to emerge in the Middle East, the extremists try to defeat its emergence," Bush said. "Extremists attack because they can't stand the thought of a democracy. And the same thing is happening in Iraq.
Bush has been speaking of Iraq as a front in the war on terror since before it began, and in similar language. Indeed, he explained his current thesis that Al Qaeda is behind sectarian violence in a speech in mid-2005, in which he said that: "Our military reports that we have killed or captured hundreds of foreign fighters in Iraq . . . They are making common cause with criminal elements, Iraqi insurgents, and remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime who want to restore the old order. They fight because they know that the survival of their hateful ideology is at stake."
This was the earliest governing hypothesis behind President Bush's claim that Iraq's violence is being fomented by Al Qaida, which has had no connection with Iraq, historically. Bush went on in that speech to claim that freedom in Iraq would lead "millions" of others in the Middle East to "claim their liberty" which would, in turn, put an end to the Middle East as a "base for attacks on America."
I've quoted so many of President Bush's words because it's worth remembering why he is so invested in the Iraq War. It is, for him and others who also see the war through the same lens, only the tip of an iceberg of a fight to the death between a Middle East based "hateful ideology" and the United States.
Now, the question is: does that lens help clarify who is acting badly in Iraq? It is extremely important that this view be examined for its facts, because only clarification about the factors driving violence in Iraq will produce strategies that can treat it. Notwithstanding the tremendous distance that now stands between Iraq and what we might call freedom, is a democratic Iraq enough to lead millions to do what they have never been able to do before (and not for not trying)? Moreover, is the Middle East a base for attacks on America? There's no statistically significant evidence that it isafter all, the United States has only been attacked once. Finally, these are all speculations about the future.
Iraq Situation Complex
The situation in Iraq can't really be reduced to a clear cut conflict, no matter what names are given it, even civil war: As one Iraqi leader put it, "It's worse than a civil war. In a civil war, you at least know which factions are fighting each other. We don't even know that anymore. It's so bloody confused."
And one explanation doesn't necessarily preclude others. For example, even though Iraq's sectarian violence should be described as civil war, there is also support among Sunnis for an Al Qaida splinter group called Al Qaida-in-Iraq in the western Anbar province.
If the United States is to effectively address the violence in Iraq, and evaluate its possible fallout across the region, explanations that permit all facts, reject heavily ideological projections into the future, and allow complexity will have to be found.
Any rush to either insist without thought that troops must stay until a mission is complete, when the mission is unclear, as well as knee-jerk response that troops should be pulled will probably rebound badly on the Americans in the end, as well as the Iraqis in whose name they were sent.