Published on Friday, October 4, 2002 in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
US Invasion of Iraq Would Play Into Bin Laden's Hands
by Matthew Levinger
If Osama bin Laden remains alive, hiding in the mountains of Northwest Pakistan, he is surely delighted by President Bush's plans for a regime change in Iraq.
Despite the horrendous carnage of the Sept. 11 attacks, bin Laden's primary goal has never been to destroy the United States.
Rather, he has attacked American targets as a means of provoking Muslim fundamentalist revolutions throughout the Middle East. In The Encyclopedia of the Afghan Jihad, a terrorist guide published in 1992, bin Laden's followers called for "the establishment of a castle of the Muslims, a (new) Caliphate" -- a pan-Islamic empire purged of Western influences.
The United States has a legitimate and urgent interest in preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. But we must exercise the utmost care in defining the scope and objectives of our response to this challenge. An American invasion of Iraq, followed by a protracted military occupation, would suit bin Laden's objectives perfectly.
In calling for military action against Iraq in a speech in Nashville recently, Vice President Dick Cheney predicted that "after liberation the streets in Basra and Baghdad are sure to erupt in joy in the same way throngs in Kabul greeted the Americans."
This scenario is overly optimistic. Although most Iraqis would probably welcome the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, many would also experience humiliation and resentment over the subsequent occupation of Iraq by American soldiers, which would be essential for preserving political stability in the region.
The Gulf War of 1991 provides a cautionary precedent. Despite Iraq's defeat, American troops have remained stationed in Saudi Arabia for the past 12 years. They have been the targets of repeated terrorist attacks and have become a focal point for the hostility of political extremists. In 1998, bin Laden published his infamous "Fatwah Urging Jihad against Americans."
The terrorist leader raged against the American "crusader armies now spreading in (the Arabian Peninsula) like locusts, consuming its riches and destroying its plantations." He denounced the Americans' "eagerness to destroy Iraq . . . and their endeavor to fragment all the states of the region such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan into paper statelets and through their disunion and weakness to guarantee Israel's survival and the continuation of the brutal crusade occupation of the Peninsula."
Although bin Laden's views may not have been widely shared in Saudi Arabia, they resonated profoundly with an angry minority. It is no coincidence that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks were Saudi citizens.
The occupation of Iraq by U.S. troops would provide an ideal recruiting platform for al-Qaida and other extremist organizations. Many people of the region would become convinced that America's goal is global domination, not dignity for Muslim people.
If President Bush launches a military campaign without the support of the United Nations, the perceptions will be even worse. Rather than upholding the rule of law, America will appear to be acting arbitrarily in its own interest. Despite our leaders' rhetoric about securing freedom and democracy, many will conclude that the United States cares only about preserving its own power.
If freedom and democracy are so important in Iraq, why does the administration show so little interest in promoting these values in Egypt or Saudi Arabia?
Our leaders need to work closely with the U.N. Security Council in order to devise an effective strategy for locating and destroying any illicit Iraqi weapons programs. This may ultimately require military action. Yet any military campaign should restrict its objective to eliminating weapons of mass destruction, rather than aiming to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has developed a model of coercive inspections, backed by a multinational military force, which provides one possible means of enforcing the U.N. resolutions.
We cannot promote democracy through the barrel of a gun. A regime change in Iraq that requires an open-ended military occupation of the country is likely to have disastrous consequences for the stability of the Middle East and for America's national security.
To defeat Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, we need to encourage the growth of democratic values and institutions around the world. America can set a powerful example in this struggle by embracing international collaboration and the rule of law.
Matthew Levinger is associate professor of history at Lewis & Clark College in Portland.
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