Published on Monday, December 1, 2003 by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
This War Not Against Terrorists
by Jay Bookman

From the beginning, the Bush administration's inability to talk straight about its Iraq policy has generated deep and valid suspicion. Good policy doesn't need to be defended by deception; the truth will do just fine.

We didn't get the truth a year ago, when Bush officials implausibly claimed that Saddam Hussein posed a dire threat to U.S. security. We're not getting the truth today, as President Bush and others depict our struggle in Iraq as some sort of defense of the American homeland.

"We are aggressively striking the terrorists in Iraq, defeating them there," Vice President Dick Cheney said a week ago, "so we do not have to face them on the streets of our own cities."

"You are defeating the terrorists in Iraq, so we don't have to face them in our country," President Bush likewise told U.S. troops during his lightning visit to Baghdad.

Such statements are simply false. Our men and women in uniform are not fighting for their lives against international terrorists in Iraq. They are not fighting the people who attacked us on Sept. 11, nor are they fighting allies of those people.

Instead, the guerrillas who are launching mortars at our military bases, attacking our troops on patrol or hiding booby traps on Iraqi highways are native Iraqis who are trying to evict American troops from their country. Despicable and cowardly as their tactics are, the Iraqi resistance is almost entirely Iraqi.

They are not attacking us because they hate Americans. They are attacking us because they hate Americans who are occupying their country.

Bureaucrats and politicians in Washington try repeatedly to pretend otherwise, suggesting that al-Qaida-linked terrorists are pouring into Iraq from Syria, Iran and even Saudi Arabia to attack our troops. But U.S. generals in Iraq, the people actually doing the fighting, have said repeatedly that they have seen little evidence of international involvement. Furthermore, the captains, majors and colonels charged with guarding Iraq's borders report no influx of foreign terrorists into Iraq and are puzzled by claims to the contrary.

Here is what the Bush administration does not want to admit to the American people:

We are fighting two different wars today, against two very different enemies. The first war, against international terror, was brought to our shores by the attacks of Sept. 11, and we had no choice but to respond aggressively, with every bit of power we could muster. The invasion of Afghanistan, the toppling of its Taliban government and the destruction of al-Qaida bases in that country were justified and necessary responses, and if anything should have been prosecuted even more aggressively than they were.

The war against Iraq, on the other hand, has been a war of choice, a war of opportunity launched by the Bush administration because the events of Sept. 11 gave it the cover to do so. If Iraq is now "the central front on the war on terror," it is because the Bush administration made it so by invading that country and threatening to turn it into the type of "failed nation" that produces terrorism.

It is almost never wise to start a second war when the outcome of the first is still unsettled because you are inevitably forced to divide resources. With more than 100,000 troops and many billions of dollars committed to Iraq for years to come; with our limited Arabic-language intelligence assets now targeted at the Iraqi resistance, not at al-Qaida and its network; and with international support for our war on terror eroded by our high-handed invasion, we have committed the classic mistake of military overreach.

The war on Iraq and the war on terror are two different struggles. Tackled separately, either would have taken us years to win. Tackling them simultaneously was tragic foolishness on a very large scale, no matter how much the president claims otherwise.

Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor.

© 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution