Center for American Progress

Memo to the Community on Iraq and the War on Terror

Memo to the Community on Iraq and the War on Terror

To: Interested Parties
Re: Five Questions on President Bush’s Global War on Terror Speech

In a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations tomorrow in Washington, President Bush will provide an update on his administration’s war on terror, which has entered its fifth year. The speech is part of a new White House communications campaign to boost American public support for the war in Iraq, an effort that has so far failed to increase Americans’ confidence in President Bush’s policies on Iraq and the war on terror. Five questions to consider as President Bush delivers his speech:

1. More than two and a half years after it invaded Iraq, why hasn’t the Bush administration developed a realistic, integrated plan for advancing reconstruction in Iraq?

In the Bush administration’s National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, released last week, more than two and a half years after President Bush’s speech in front a “Mission Accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln, the Bush administration provided more details on its plan to advance Iraq’s political transition and economic reconstruction. But key elements of this victory strategy for Iraq are hollow.

Though President Bush attempted in his speech to leave the impression that his administration has a plan for victory in Iraq, the U.S. Agency for International Development issued a $1 billion bid for contracts for 10 “strategic cities” considered crucial for defeating the insurgency. In other words, the Bush administration is still shopping for a plan to stabilize Iraq while President Bush tries to make the case to the American public that he already has a plan.

In addition, the Bush administration’s victory strategy for Iraq puts emphasis on provincial reconstruction teams (PRT) as a key element of its reconstruction and stability plan. But the State Department has had problems finding qualified people to fill key positions. Furthermore, as it introduces PRTs in Iraq, the Bush administration should look to the lessons learned from the mixed experience of PRTs in Afghanistan, where they have been hampered by the lack of qualified personnel.

2. Why doesn’t the Bush administration listen to commanding generals in Iraq and recognize that the U.S. military presence fuels the insurgency and contributes to instability in Iraq?

President Bush should listen to his top generals in Iraq and take realistic steps to take away the fuel that fires the insurgency. In October 2005, General John Abizaid argued that the United States must reduce its “military footprint” in Iraq and the region as a means to create more stability, but President Bush has continued to stick with a “stay the course” message.

3. Why hasn’t the Bush administration taken the necessary steps to keep Americans safe from global terrorists?

President Bush is delivering his speech two days after the 9/11 Public Discourse Project gave the Bush administration mostly low or incomplete grades on implementing the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations. Headed by Republican Thomas Kean and Democrat Lee Hamilton, the bipartisan group’s report raises serious questions about President Bush’s leadership on fighting terrorism and keeping Americans safe.

President Bush will likely cite last week’s death of Hamza Rabia, the alleged number three leader of al Qaeda, as a sign of progress. But this one incident covers up key facts of President Bush’s weak record on fighting global terrorists:

Furthermore, the Bush administration has failed to answer key questions posed by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in an October 2003 memorandum, including: “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”

4. Is President Bush using freedom and democracy rhetoric to cover up his failures to reduce immediate threats Americans face from terrorists?

Continued international support for Iraq’s political transition is vital. Even if the December elections are generally successful, Iraq will only be in the very early and fragile stages of a long-term process of building governing institutions. Iraqis do not yet live in a free society, according to the democracy and human rights organization Freedom House.

President Bush will likely argue that promoting freedom and democracy in Iraq is a key element to defeating terrorists, as he has done in recent speeches. But President Bush should not confuse the challenges of advancing democracy with the challenges of defeating terrorist networks. Recent experience in Afghanistan suggests that in the short run, successful democratic political processes will not reduce terrorism or lead to greater stability.

The evidence in support of the argument that democracy reduces terrorism is weak. Numerous democratic countries have produced violent extremists and terrorists. The perpetrators of the July 2005 London attacks, for example, were homegrown, as was Mohammed Bouyeri of the Netherlands.

5. Why do President Bush and his top advisors continue to overstate the chances for a radical Islamic empire based in Iraq?

During the past few months, President Bush and top officials in his administration have attempted to raise fears about the possibility of a radical Islamic empire based in Iraq if the United States leaves Iraq “too soon,” in the words of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. President Bush takes the stated aspirations of radical Sunni terrorists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi at face value.

But the chances for radical Sunni Islamist groups in Iraq taking control of Iraq are next to nil – Kurds and Shiites outnumber Sunnis four to one in Iraq, and Sunni groups lack weapons to capture and control large areas of Iraq.

There is no chance for a broader radical Islamic empire stretching from Indonesia to Spain. The global Muslim community is too diverse to become unified under a single system, and recent empirical research demonstrates rising concerns among Muslims about Islamic extremism. Furthermore, strong majorities of people in most Muslim-majority countries express support for democracy.

Rather than giving too much credence to the possibility of al Qaeda’s aspirations and raising illogical fears about a radical Islamic empire that has no chance of becoming a reality, President Bush should take real steps to advance democracy in Iraq, including drawing down the U.S. military presence to advance Iraq’s transition to democracy.

President Bush has failed to lead and keep Americans safe. To defeat the threats the United States faces in Iraq and the broader struggle against violent extremists, the country needs a new strategy, like the Strategic Redeployment, issued by the Center for American Progress on September 30, 2005.

Brian Katulis is Director of Democracy and Public Diplomacy on the National Security Team at the Center for American Progress.

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow