It would be nice — or at least more convenient — if America could fight just one enemy at a time. But that’s seldom how it works.
World War II was called a world war for a reason: President Franklin Roosevelt might have preferred to take on only Imperial Japan, the nation that had attacked us. Instead, he had to lead the country into battle also against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. He had to fight not only in the Pacific but in North Africa and Europe as well.
It’s astonishing how many otherwise smart people seem incapable of grasping this reality. Many have been making the peculiar argument that we shouldn’t worry too much about al Qaeda in Iraq because it’s somehow different from al Qaeda Not in Iraq. Consider the question a reporter asked of President Bush at a recent press conference:
But, sir … what evidence can you present to the American people that the people who attacked the United States on September the 11th are, in fact, the same people who are responsible for the bombings taking place in Iraq? What evidence can you present? And also, are you saying, sir, that al Qaeda in Iraq is the same organization being run by Osama bin Laden, himself?
Can you imagine, President Roosevelt being asked:
But, sir … what evidence can you present to the American people that the people who attacked the United States on December 7th are, in fact, the same people who are responsible for the so-called “blitz” bombings now taking place in London? What evidence can you present? And also, are you saying, sir, that those attacking London belong to the same organization as do those Japanese who are allegedly responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor?
Reporters and other interested parties might spend a few minutes reviewing the latest National Intelligence Estimate. It states unequivocally that al Qaeda in Iraq is al Qaeda’s “most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the Homeland” here in the United States. In plain language: The consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community is that the most dangerous branch of the terrorist organization that attacked American on 9/11 is al Qaeda in Iraq.
A front-page story in The Washington Post this week further muddies the issue. It describes West Rashid, a Baghdad neighborhood currently controlled by Jaish al-Mahdi, the Shia militia led by the radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The article asserts: “West Rashid confounds the prevailing narrative from top U.S. military officials that the Sunni insurgent group al Qaeda in Iraq is the city’s most formidable and disruptive force.”
That is flatly misleading: First, the fact that there are neighborhoods controlled by Jaish al-Mahid hardly constitutes proof — or even compelling evidence — that Sadr’s militia is “more formidable and disruptive” than al Qaeda, the group responsible for the vast majority of suicide bombings in Iraq. Second, top U.S. military officials have said consistently that the new “surge” strategy fully under way since June 15 includes an offensive against both al Qaeda strongholds and extremist militias.
If the United States does have an enemy more worrisome than al Qaeda, it’s Iran. For years, we have responded fecklessly to Iran’s acts of war — from the seizure of our embassy in 1979 to the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut by Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, to the 1996 attack on our troops in Saudi Arabia to the undermining of our current missions throughout the Middle East.
Finally, last week — and with relatively little media attention — the Senate unanimously indicted Iran for murdering Americans in Iraq. It adopted Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s amendment to “Confront Iran on its Attacks on American Soldiers.”
Some of these attacks have been direct. Others have been carried out by militias — such as Jaish al-Mahdi — financed by Iran and, in many case, armed and trained on Iranian soil. Hezbollah also has come to Iraq to help slaughter Americans. The amendment notes that Iran has even been facilitating the entry of al Qaeda terrorists into Iraq. And the Tehran regime permits Ansar al-Sunna, an al Qaeda affiliate, to maintain a base in northwest Iran.
These combatants, Lieberman observed, “are responsible for the murder of hundreds of American soldiers, and thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians as well.”
So yes, America has a long list of “formidable and disruptive” enemies — in Iraq and elsewhere. That’s not just a “narrative.” It’s the truth — and it ought at least to be taken into account by those debating from which battlefields Americans should flee.
(Clifford D. May is the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.)