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
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
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
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
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
Matthew Levinger is associate professor of history at Lewis & Clark College
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