The few declassified tea leaves from the brewing pot of the National Intelligence Estimate, released last week, are being studied for justifications and denunciations by both sides in the national debate about Iraq.
Frances Townsend, Homeland Security adviser, told reporters that both President Bush and Osama bin Laden agreed Iraq was "the central front in the war on terror." Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations, who was an editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal, said the intelligence report "makes it clear that the threat from Al Qaeda is not just to Iraqis -- it's to the US homeland as well."
The justification for this interpretation of the report lies in the sentence that says "Al Qaeda will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of Al Qaeda in Iraq, its most visible and capable affiliate, and the only one known to express a desire to attack the homeland."
But an opposing view could be justified in the following paragraph: "In addition, we assess that Al Qaeda's association with Al Qaeda in Iraq helps to energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for homeland attacks." In other words, Iraq is a godsend to Al Qaeda because it stirs up so much anger in the Muslim world, and generates incalculable support for Al Qaeda's cause.
It would be natural for Al Qaeda to leverage all the contacts and capabilities that America's occupation has handed them, but one shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the only reasons that there is an Al Qaeda in Iraq are the American invasion and occupation.
Well, maybe that's so, you might say, but Al Qaeda is there now and attacking Americans every day. Doesn't that make Iraq the central front of the war on terrorism no matter what the mistakes of the past?
I heard Townsend on National Public Radio defending the decision to invade Iraq by saying: "If you poke the hornets' nest they are bound to push back. That doesn't suggest to me that you shouldn't be doing it." But maybe it does suggest that you shouldn't be doing it, especially if it turns out that the hornets only came to the nest after you poked it.
According to the Townsend-Bush field-of-dreams logic, we could create even more central fronts on terrorism by invading other Arab countries, because Al Qaeda will come in to oppose the invasion, gathering up even more local support. If you invade Arab countries, they will come.
Al Qaeda has never represented more than 10 percent of the Iraqi resistance, but nowadays you hear that American troops are being deployed in whole provinces to fight just against Al Qaeda. The image of Al Qaeda in Iraq is elevated, and it is almost as if there was no more home-grown resistance, and that nationalism and hatred of foreign occupation no longer existed as a reason to oppose the United States. One suspects this is because the American public isn't going to any longer support a war against Baathists and "dead enders," as the Iraqi resistance used to be called, but they might be persuaded to stay the course if you brand everyone in the Sunni resistance Al Qaeda.
The suggestion that if we leave Iraq Al Qaeda will take over the country is absurd. Excepting Kurdistan, if anyone is likely to take over Iraq at the end of this fiasco it will be the Shia, whom Al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists view as apostates. The eventual withdrawal of American troops will lessen Al Qaeda's support in Iraq because its whole reason for being there is to resist the American occupation. And the intelligence report suggests that we are creating more terrorists than we are killing.
Only by the most torturous magical thinking can the Iraq tragedy be interpreted as anything other than a colossal mistake that has distracted from the goal of defeating Islamic extremism and its attending terrorism. The longer the Iraq tragedy remains on stage the more there will be for Al Qaeda to exploit. The more Iraq remains a magnet for jihadi hornets, the more nests we will have to poke.
Given that Iraq has presented Osama bin Laden with undreamed of opportunities to raise resources and recruit operatives to attack America, it is no wonder he considers Iraq the central front. The wonder is that the Bush administration is still falling into its self-dug trap.