Don’t Let Iraq Dictate Anti-Terrorism Policy

Shibley Telhami

Even if the inclusion of Iran in the “axis of evil” were a function of U.S. policy on Iraq, it is still highly risky. It is likely to increase Iran’s determination to acquire nuclear weapons without changing its policy on terrorism. Moreover, in lumping terrorism with the spread of weapons of mass destruction, we may be working in opposite directions: One task requires the significant cooperation of states, the other targets them. We need differentiated policies.

If there is any logic to Iran’s inclusion on the list with Iraq and North Korea, it is derived from a possible war on Iraq. Historically, the United States sought to maintain balance in the Persian Gulf between Iraq and Iran, not allowing either one to dominate. During the Cold War, the U.S. supported Iran while the Soviets supported Iraq. During the Iran-Iraq War, our policy was to ensure that neither side won decisively.

After the Gulf War in 1991, the U.S. embarked on the “dual containment” of Iran and Iraq, largely because we worried that the weakening of Iraq and the imposition of sanctions on it could give Iran an opportunity to assert its power in the region. Now, with a potential war on Iraq, which at minimum would significantly weaken it and at maximum lead to its disintegration, the ground also is laid for weakening Iran. This, Bush administration officials probably hope, also would alleviate the fears of some allies in the Gulf who have always seen Iran as a threat and worried that a diminished Iraq would increase that threat.

It seems then that Hussein, not the fear of terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, is dictating U.S. policy. Indeed, many states that have policy differences with the U.S. may now increase their drive to procure nuclear weapons as the only way to deter American power. Countering this drive through military means alone probably would increase states’ sponsorship of terrorism: If they are to be targets anyway, their easiest method of response is terrorism.

We are capable of destroying many enemies, including Iran, Iraq, North Korea and more, but we do not have the resources to bring stability or the desired outcome in every region after such wars. And instability is where terrorism thrives.

Ugly as some states are, they remain the natural enemies of terrorism by fanatic groups. Weakening and destabilizing these states will not decrease terror. It is easier to deter states than to deter shadowy nonstate groups.

The U.S. has been the target of a single horrific enemy that has viciously attacked us and declared war on us: Al Qaeda. Imagine if the anger of many groups and states becomes directed at us. The recent anti-American demonstrations in Iran are an unfortunate reminder. The horror of last September demonstrated how easy it is to commit large-scale terror in the age of globalization.

Osama bin Laden’s horrible message to potential terrorists was not so much a call to join his group but to demonstrate the vulnerability of even the largest power on Earth to the acts of a few men with box cutters. In this he succeeded, even as we have fortunately destroyed much of his power. The danger that remains is too great to allow ourselves to be blindsided by our obsession with Saddam Hussein.

We are a powerful country and we must use that power to defend our interests against those who threaten us. But we do not need more desperate enemies.

Much of the world, which saw our vulnerability in the September tragedy as a threat to the global order, was buoyed by the recovery of American power after the Afghan success. Now is the time for prudence, not for turning global empathy and admiration into pervasive anger.