How Important Is Iraq?

Just Think of It as World War IV


In Iraq, it appears, the United States is in for a long trial. Baathists and Islamists, bitter enemies in other contexts, have found common cause against the American occupation. In the wake of devastating bombing attacks on the United Nations' Baghdad headquarters and, in Najaf, on Iraq's holiest Shiite shrine, Western intelligence has grown increasingly confident that America faces not only remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime and local Islamic extremists but also a sizable influx of outside jihadis, for whom Iraq has become a magnet.

Then there is Afghanistan, where Taliban forces are mounting an organized, if still only sporadically effective, offensive in the south and east. The New York Times recently quoted an unnamed senior Western diplomat on the Taliban's strategy to turn its weakness into strength among the local population: "The mantra they use is that the Americans and the international community will leave someday, and we will come back."

Then there is Palestine, where hopes for any sort of progress toward peace or even toward calm have taken another beating. Although the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon could have done more to implement the so-called road map (an American-led peace effort), a more fundamental problem seems to be that both Yasir Arafat and Hamas want the moderate leadership of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to fail. To help him fail, militants blew up a bus full of Israeli civilians, detonating the road map's fragile cease-fire along with it.

After two years of embroilment against terrorists and thugs in three theaters, Americans are not yet weary but are increasingly wary. President Bush's approval ratings have softened, the Democrats are on his case for doing both too much and too little, and a July ABC News/Washington Post poll found 80 percent of the public saying they were "very" or "somewhat concerned" about the possibility that America will get "bogged down" in Iraq. (The plurality, 43 percent, said "very concerned.") A pointed cartoon in The Economist shows Bush in a tank, stuck in a muddy sinkhole. "We will not retreat!" Bush is saying. Sitting behind him, an anxious Uncle Sam says, "OK…but will we advance?"

A reasonable question, but one that can only be properly answered in a broader context. The engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan and (to a lesser extent) Palestine are all parts of a larger engagement that may last more like 40 years than four, and that any Democratic successor to Bush would find himself equally compelled to fight, even if not in exactly the same way. Is this engagement important? Just think of it as World War IV.

Philip Bobbitt, a University of Texas law professor and the author of last year's book The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History, conceives of World War I, World War II, and the Cold War not as discrete events but as phases in a single protracted conflict—what he calls the Long War. How so? All were "constitutional" struggles, in which liberal democracy faced down a series of challengers for the right to govern. World War I brought an end to the dynastic empires but did not settle the question of what form of rule would succeed them. First fascism and then Communism staked their claims, and defeating them took until 1991. That left liberal democracy triumphant. The great constitutional conflict was settled.

Only—this is me now, not Bobbitt—it was not settled. Away on the horizon, at first seeming too weak and eccentric to worry about, Islamic totalitarianism ("Islamism") was preparing its own challenge. Quite distinct from Islam as a religion, Islamism proposed a system of government that had imperial aspirations and that sought to abolish the private sphere and secular politics. First in Iran in 1979, then in Afghanistan a decade later, it showed it could defeat a modern secular state. It began to dream of driving "crusaders" and Jews and secularism out of all the Islamic lands, and even perhaps out of America.

As totalitarian ideologies go, militant Islamism is not one of the most appealing. It preaches asceticism, repression, and isolation. As a social system, it is largely parasitic, better at buying technology than inventing it, able to destroy with skill but much less adept at building. Its main allure is that, for many people living under the thumb of regimes that are authoritarian, incompetent, and corrupt, Islamism seems to offer the only hope of a passably honest, passably efficient alternative.

Ayatollah Khomeini's revolutionary Iranian regime, although repressive, at least seemed to root its repression in principles other than merely retaining power. The Taliban managed to impose order on Afghanistan. Hamas runs social service operations that win admiration from Palestinians who view the secular authorities as intractably crooked. In Egypt, Algeria, Pakistan, and elsewhere, many ordinary people regard Islamism as the only way out and up.

For 50 years, America was complicit in presenting the Arab world with a false choice between corrupt authoritarianism and militant Islamism. Worse, the United States took the side of corrupt authoritarianism. In that limited sense, America was complicit in the rise of militant Islamism. But secular authoritarianism turned out to mean Assad's Syria, el-Qaddafi's Libya, and Saddam's Iraq, all of them dangerous to their own regions and to American interests.

What does any of this have to do with Iraq? I don't believe the Bush administration went to war in Iraq on a "neoconservative" mission to reorder the whole Arab world, although it certainly hoped for favorable side effects. I think the administration went to war because it believed that leaving Saddam and his sons in power for another 10 or 20 or 30 years—with the U.S.-led containment effort already in tatters—would be untenable and irresponsible. I think the administration believed that with 9/11 memories fading and a presidential election coming up, the chance to get rid of Saddam might never come again. So the administration took the chance.

In Iraq, what was a war of choice has now become a postwar of necessity. The jihadis filtering into Iraq perceive this even if some Americans do not. If the United States succeeds in proving that there is a liberal, moderate alternative to both the Baath Party and militant Islamism, the Islamists' false choice is exposed. The establishment of a reasonably competent, honest, and stable government in Iraq would be a staggering blow to the appeal of political Islam worldwide.

From the Islamists' point of view, this is a life-or-death struggle. America _must_ fail in Iraq. Ideally, America should also fail to establish a competent, honest, stable Palestinian state, and a competent, honest, stable Afghan state. But Iraq is the big one. From the jihadis' point of view, a victory over America in Iraq—meaning the Americans go home without having managed to set up a viable, moderate government—would be a twofer. American prestige and power would be wounded, and the false choice between Islamism and corrupt secular tyranny would be confirmed. "You see?" the Islamists would say. "It really is just us or the devil. The Americans won't stay and can't win."

What America is doing in Iraq and Afghanistan and Palestine is best thought of not as nation building but as alternative building. It's hard. In the Cold War, the democracies could win by outlasting their adversary. Communism's surviving victims needed little persuasion to embrace Western-style politics and economics when they could. In the new conflict, by contrast, America needs not only to defeat and discredit two quite different ideologies (Baathist-style fascism and Islamic totalitarianism) but also to establish the viability of a third way. A few well-placed bombs can make this quite difficult.

In Afghanistan, our side is winning, but we're still in the first lap and the enemy is back on his feet. In Iraq, our side is struggling and the opponent is gaining. In Palestine, with Abbas undercut from both sides and too weak to enforce the road map, our side is not fully in contention.

If the situation looks discouraging, however, remember that World War I and World War II and World War III (the Cold War) all started out looking worse. In all three cases, the democracies proved stronger than they looked, and their opponents proved weaker. Remember also that many Iraqis and Afghans and Palestinians support what America is trying to do and will come forward when it appears we can win. As the jihadis must know, their movement could collapse as suddenly as Communism did.

Remember, finally, what we learned two years ago this Thursday. The other side is not going to go away and leave us alone. If the world's 200 million or more Arab Muslims are not given hope, they will lash out in fear. The Long War, alas, isn't over.