Ron Paul's exchange with Rudy Giuliani in the second Republican candidates' debate over what motivates al Qaeda highlights an issue that ought to be at the center of the next presidential election campaign: What is the relationship between U.S. policy in Iraq and the ability of Osama bin Laden to recruit jihadists in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East?
The specific point at issue was Paul's assertion that the al Qaeda attack on 9/11 was motivated by resentment of U.S. policies toward and military presence in Islamic countries. Giuliani's response that Paul's view was unacceptable is not much different from virtually all of the other Republican and Democratic candidates. That orthodox view is that those who are attracted to al Qaeda hate America for its freedom.
The truth, as the former chief of the CIA's bin Laden unit, Michael Schuer, has just reminded us in a letter to antiwar.com, is that "our Islamist enemies do not give a damn about the way we vote, think or live." It is not our freedom that has motivated the jihadists to want to attack us, Scheuer says, but the blundering policies of the United States in the Middle East.
The right-wing has an automatic response to that argument, which is to accuse the critics of wanting to shift the responsibility for the terror attacks from al Qaeda to the United States itself. But that is a non-sequitur --a crude way of changing the subject. The issue at stake is not whether al Qaeda terrorists are responsible for their own atrocities, and certainly not whether they are justified. It is whether there is a predictable cause and effect relationship between U.S. policies in the Middle East and the motivation of the Islamic jihadists who might threaten the United States.
The Bush administration's occupation of Iraq is based on the premise that the U.S. military presence in Iraq is the answer to rather than problem of al Qaeda's recruitment of jihadists. In the newest installment in the White House campaign to exploit the al Qaeda issue in Iraq, Fran Townsend, President Bush's adviser for homeland security, cited "newly declassified intelligence," that bin Laden had ordered al Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to form a cell in 2005 to plot attacks against the United States. Townsend asserted that this two-year old intelligence supports the administration's assertion that U.S. troops must stay in Iraq for now to prevent it from becoming a "terrorist sanctuary."
Obviously no one wants al Qaeda operatives using Iraq as a "terrorist sanctuary" to plan attacks on the United States. But it was only the U.S. occupation of Iraq that had created that opportunity. "The U.S. invasion of Iraq is Osama bin Laden's gift from America," wrote Michael Scheuer in his book Imperial Hubris, published in 2004 as "anonymous" because he was still head of the CIA's bin Laden unit.
Scheuer observed that bin Laden must have ardenly desired such a U.S. occupation but never expected it. After all Iraq without Saddam "would obviously become what political scientists called a 'failed state', a place where al Qaeda or al Qaeda-like organizations would thrive." But even more to the point, he wrote, bin Laden knew that a U.S. invasion would "sharply deepen anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world...."
A non-Muslim army invading and occupying a Muslim country was bound to invoke the fundamental Muslim doctrine of defensive jihad. Scheuer quoted the president of the world's oldest university, al-Azhar University in Cairo, as saying, on the very eve of the U.S. invasion, "Once an enemy lands in Muslim territory, jihad becomes the individual duty of every Muslim man and woman."
The intelligence coming into the CIA in 2003 and 2004 showed that the occupation of Iraq was driving al Qaeda's recruitment efforts in Iraq and other Muslim countries. CIA Director Porter Goss testified to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in February 2005, that "Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraqi conflict to recruit new anti-U.S. jihadists." And although Goss didn't state explicitly that it was U.S. policy in Iraq that was fueling the recruitment, Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby did. "Our policies in the Middle East fuel Islamic resentment," he testified. "Overwhelming majorities in Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia believe the U.S. has a negative policy toward the Arab world."
Never mind the past, says the Bush administration, in effect; the only thing that matters now is the necessary to destroy the al Qaeda sanctuary in Iraq. But the cause and effect relationship that caused the problem doesn't suddenly become irrelevant to the question of what to do about it. If it was the U.S. occupation that facilitated the recruitment of new jihadists both in Iraq and elsewhere, then how can continuation of the status quo be the answer? Military withdrawal from Iraq is the only way to deprive al Qaeda of its political support.
Significantly, most Americans already understand what the political elite still refuses to grasp. In an opinion survey done last October by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, 60 percent of respondents believed the Bush administration's policies have actually increased the likelihood of terrorist attacks against the United States. That is why a national debate on the issue before the next election is so important.