“Policy toward Iraq is … not designed to protect U.S. national security. It is instead a threat to our security because it may lead to war and loss of American lives, increase terrorism and certainly an additional expense for the U.S. taxpayer. The hyped rhetoric coming from Washington which describes Hussein as the only evil monster with which we must deal in the world is a poor substitute for wise counsel. “
~ Rep. Ron Paul, Letter to President Bill Clinton, November 19, 1997
“If we don’t stop extending our troops all around the world in nation-building missions, then we’re going to have a serious problem coming down the road.”
~ Gov. George W. Bush, Presidential debate with Al Gore, October 3, 2000
Many conservatives have said that they agree with Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul on just about everything, but they just can’t see things his way when it comes to dealing with the Middle East. Paul’s views – correctly or incorrectly perceived – could well be a deal breaker for some in the base of the Republican party who look for strong presidential leadership to protect us from foreign threats. This open letter is an attempt to persuade you that Paul has been, and continues to be, right about the terrorist threat and what should be done about it.
Ron Paul understands something that the other candidates from both parties apparently cannot: Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda is a relatively small organization with limited reach. The attack of September 11th was a desperate act from a desperate group who has failed miserably in their quest to conquer and unify the Islamic world. They do not control a single state on earth. By all indications Bin Laden, al Zawahiri and their closest followers remain isolated in the no-man’s-land between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Al Qaeda is not an Islamo-fascist caliphate on the march, but they have attacked us and remain a threat. It is al Qaeda – not extremism everywhere – that Dr. Paul means to fight. Responding appropriately demands a cold and objective assessment of the situation, not unchecked, knee-jerk emotion.
Let us start with the question “Why did they attack us on September 11th?”
Dr. Paul’s fellow GOP candidates may publicly denounce him all they want for his view that the September 11th hijackers, their accomplices and financiers were motivated by a hatred of American policy in the Middle East. The terrorists themselves cite U.S. support for Israel and an indefinite military occupation of the Saudi desert, necessary for the enforcement of the blockade and no-fly zones against neighboring Iraq during the 1990s.
Similarly, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, a primary architect of the Iraq invasion, explained to Vanity Fair magazine soon after the fall of Baghdad, in May, 2003, that the ability to move the bases from Saudi Arabia to Iraq was a great benefit of the war because it detracted from one of bin Laden’s motivations for attacking the U.S.:
“There are a lot of things that are different now, and one that has gone by almost unnoticed – but it’s huge – is that by complete mutual agreement between the U.S. and the Saudi government we can now remove almost all of our forces from Saudi Arabia. Their presence there over the last 12 years has been a source of enormous difficulty for a friendly government. It’s been a huge recruiting device for al Qaeda. In fact if you look at bin Laden, one of his principle grievances was the presence of so-called crusader forces on the holy land, Mecca and Medina. I think just lifting that burden from the Saudis is itself going to open the door to other positive things.”
According to authors Lawrence Wright, Terry McDermott, Michael Scheuer, Loretta Napoleoni and James Bamford, the purpose of al Qaeda terrorism, and specifically the September 11th attacks, was to provoke a reaction. Bin Laden and his partner Zawahiri have both explained that they already saw the U.S. as being in a state of war with them, but through their own governments and from far away North America. Their strategy was to hit us hard enough to provoke a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan. Essentially, their goal was to recreate their war against the Soviets a generation before – a war that they, of course, consider to be the primary cause of the USSR’s collapse. In other words, they meant to lure our military to their sandtrap to bleed our treasury dry, forcing our empire out of their region for good.
In this sense, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s decision to keep the invasion “light and fast” – at least at first – was smart insofar as it would deny the terrorists the quagmire they sought to provoke. Unfortunately, the administration’s decision to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq stole defeat from the jaws of victory, ridding the largest Arab state of its secular and formerly Western-backed dictator and creating a second chance for bin Laden to claim gains against the United States.
Years before 9/11, In February 1998, Dr. Paul told the Congress:
“Mr. Speaker, the Saudis this past week expressed a sincere concern about an anti-American backlash if we start bombing Baghdad. We should not ignore the feelings of the Saudis. If a neighbor can oppose this bombing, we should be very cautious.”
Later that year, while Bill Clinton was shooting cruise missiles at antibiotics factories and empty training camps in Afghanistan, Ron Paul spoke from the floor of the House of Representatives, warning the public and the Congress that our policy was in fact making enemies of our former friends, the mujahedeen warriors of Afghanistan (who he had opposed funding in the first place during his stint in Congress in the 1980s):
“Osama bin Laden and his Afghan religious supporters were American allies throughout the 1980s and received our money and training and were heralded as the Afghan ‘Freedom Fighters.’ Even then, bin Laden let it be known that his people resented all imperialism, whether from the Soviets or the United States. …
“[T]he region’s Muslims see America as the imperialist invader. They have deeply held religious beliefs, and in their desire for national sovereignty many see America as a threatening menace. America’s presence in the Middle East, most flagrantly demonstrated with troops and bases in Saudi Arabia, is something many Muslims see as defiling their holy land. Many Muslims – and this is what makes an extremist like bin Laden so popular – see American policy as identical to Israel’s policy; an affront to them that is rarely understood by most Americans.
“Far too often, the bombing of declared (or concocted) enemies, whether it’s the North Vietnamese, the Iraqis, the Libyans, the Sudanese, the Albanians, or the Afghans, produces precisely the opposite effect to what is sought. It kills innocent people, creates more hatred toward America, unifies and stimulates the growth of the extremist Islamic movement and makes them more determined than ever to strike back with their weapon of choice – terror.”
You can see now why Ron Paul did not endorse Bill Clinton’s endless bombing campaigns back then and why he opposed the war in 2003. He saw the consequences of U.S. policy on their way back when most were caught up with the dot-com bubble and White House sex scandal.
Between these two warnings from Dr. Paul about the possible terrorist blowback from U.S. foreign policy, Osama bin Laden had re-released his 1996 “fatwa” against the United States. Titled “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places” (the Arabian peninsula), he invoked support for Israel, the occupation of Saudi Arabia, the backing of local dictatorships and the continuous bombing of Iraq as his major grievances against U.S. policy.
For those determined to see bin Laden as simply a cold-blooded murderer who hates us because we are free, what is important to understand is that no matter what he actually believes, his message is one of specific complaints against U.S. policy. And it is this, as Ron Paul noted back in 1998, that makes bin Laden’s message useful in gaining new recruits to his “jihad.”
Even though some on TV complain that recognizing these facts somehow implicitly excuses the actions of those who attacked the United States, this, of course, is a red herring. Nothing could excuse the acts of September 11th. A Congressman identifying the motives at play is not justifying the attacks any more than when a local DA tries to figure out why someone has committed any other crime. If we believe that the terrorists are motivated to attack us because we have freedom, or have yet to invade their countries and give them freedom, then our policy prescriptions for multiple regime changes across the Middle East can only make matters worse. With opinion of the United States falling all across the world, and especially in the Muslim world, the continued presence of U.S. combat troops on Arab soil makes attacks against this country much more likely, not less. Paul voted to give the president the authority to use military force against bin Laden’s group in Afghanistan and has repeatedly stated that were he president, actually doing so would be a top priority.
Not only did Paul foresee the problem with terrorism stemming from our continuous bombing campaign in the 1990s, he also predicted the consequences in Iraq were Saddam and the Ba’athists to fall. In the February ’98 speech quoted above, he also asked:
“And even if we do kill Hussein, what do we do? We create a vacuum, a vacuum that may be filled by Iran. It may be filled by some other groups of Islamic fundamentalists.”
The invasion of Iraq created what the CIA calls a “training and recruiting ground” for al Qaeda wannabes in that land, though it seems the low numbers of so-called “foreign fighters” being brought into “al Qaeda in Iraq” have had even less influence than the skeptics had predicted.
These al Qaeda wannabes in Iraq have worn out their welcome with the local Sunni insurgency and have not been able to mount attacks outside Iraq. The local Sunnis tolerated them only as long as they were useful in fighting the occupation and were able to flick off “al Qaeda in Iraq” like a switch when they felt like it, as seen in the 20062007 “Sunni Awakening” in provinces where they had been welcomed.
The president threatens that if the U.S. withdraws, Osama bin Laden and his followers could somehow take over Iraq and create a new terrorist state bent on attacking the America. This just does not hold water. Osama’s movement remains small and marginal. The “central front” in the fight against them is in the Waziristan region of Pakistan, not in far away Iraq.
The end of Saddam’s rule has also empowered Iran, which has used the democracy provided by the American occupation to get their proxies elected to power. The Bush administration apparently tolerated this for no other reason than that the pro-Iran factions needed the U.S. occupation and so welcomed it, while the nationalist Shi’ite leaders like Muqtada al Sadr insisted on withdrawal. Were the American occupation to end, it is much more likely that nationalist types such as Sadr’s Mahdi Army would drive the Iranians back to Persia.
Ironically, the U.S. has spent 2007 accusing Iran of backing and waging war against American forces in Iraq through the Sadrists, who are not Iranian proxies and who are not fighting the occupation. They have provided no evidence that this is the case and our Shi’ite allies in Iraq have nothing but praise for Iran’s support of their government.
When it comes to Iran, Ron Paul’s view isn’t much different than that of Gen. John Abizaid, George Bush’s former head of Central Command. The General stated recently that Iran is not much of a threat and still would not pose one were they to obtain nuclear weapons – an achievement they are years away from, according to Mike McConnell, Bush’s National Intelligence Director.
The Iranians pose no real threat to Israel or the West. Their nuclear enrichment equipment is nothing more than first-generation crap bought second-hand from the Pakistanis, every bit of which is monitored by international inspectors. Ninety percent pure Uranium-235 or Plutonium-239 is needed to make an atom bomb; the Iranians have yet to enrich their uranium higher than 4 percent and could not do so in the presence of the International Atomic Energy Agency monitors and sensors. Harvesting plutonium from their nuclear reactors would take years and likewise could not even begin without everyone knowing.
Iran’s much touted “support for international terrorism” has nothing whatsoever to do with Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda or the September 11th attacks on this country. Iran supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. While often times extremely violent, these groups are not global in their reach, are not enemies of the United States and pose no threat to this country.
It has been claimed that the president of Iran, who actually holds the power of a glorified Secretary of the Interior, has threatened to “wipe Israel off the map,” in a speech in October, 2005. But according to those who are fluent in Farsi, he said no such thing. What he said was that the “regime” over Jerusalem would one day “vanish from the page of time.” This was not even a subtle or implied threat, much less a promise of imminent attack. The fact also remains that Iran has no capability to destroy Israel, conventionally, with nukes they don’t have or through nearly powerless groups like Hamas.
No country in the world would attempt to “annihilate” Israel. The politician who did so would be dooming himself and his entire nation to perish in nuclear flames. Israel has at least 300 nuclear bombs and the delivery systems necessary to “wipe Persia off the map” in the space of an afternoon. As Paul has noted, the U.S. triumphantly faced down the Soviet Union (who actually were an existential threat), while our modern day think-tankers say the only way to deal with nearly-helpless Iran is with preemptive war.
Many Americans believe they need the government to defend them from “radical Islam,” but those who hold truest to enforcing the strictest interpretations of Islam as a way of life have no chance of gaining or maintaining real dominance over humanity in the 21st century. Even if 100 impossibilities found Osama bin Laden leading the new caliphate in the Middle East, it would be as doomed as Communism was in the last century. Do we really fear that a stateless band of pirates in exile in the Hindu Kush will destroy us? Have we so much confidence in the capabilities of those who had to steal our planes in order to launch their Kamikaze attack and so little belief in the resilience of our own civilization?
Speaking of (Japanese Shintoist and Buddhist) Kamikazes, why should we believe that terrorism is intrinsically connected with Islam at all? Suicide bombings are rife in Sri Lanka where neither side is Muslim. By contrast, radical Islam is prevalent in Sudan, where it has no relationship to the current widespread violence (both sides are Sunni Arabs) and there has never been a suicide bombing. Did radical Catholicism motivate the IRA?
In the book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, Dr. Robert A. Pape’s research shows that suicide terrorism is a strategic response to occupation by foreign armies, plain and simple. The only role religion plays in this struggle, according to Pape, is that the willingness of the occupied to resort to suicide attacks increases when the occupying army is made of people who come from far away, look different and believe differently due to the fear that their entire way of life will come under attack.
Americans are the same way. Our irrational fear that Arab Islamic terrorists from the Middle East are coming here to force us all to convert to Wahhabism has convinced us to spend thousands of lives, trillions of dollars, pass piles of new laws and nearly break our defenses in our efforts to preempt them. Now that’s suicide.
The hyperbole about “radical Islam” has also helped to obscure divisions among those who oppose the U.S. in the Middle East and Central Asia. Even presidential candidates speak as though al Qaeda, the Ayatollahs in Iran, Sunni radicals in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon are all one unified threat that must be “preempted.” This may be good for defense manufacturing firms and votes, but if we can’t even tell who our adversaries are, what distinguishes one from another, how are we supposed to win the fight?
A recent local newspaper story from Dr. Paul’s Texas Gulf Coast district quoted one of his constituents complaining that if Paul were elected president and withdrew U.S. troops from the Middle East, we would have no oil at all. This is just not the case. In fact, it is the economic theory of mercantilism that Adam Smith refuted in The Wealth of Nations back in 1776.
It is not necessary for the Japanese, Chinese or Swiss to send armies to the Middle East in order to get the petroleum their economies demand. They simply buy it on the market like anything else. The only reason one would need the Marine Corps to “secure” the oil is to ensure which companies get to do the pumping and distributing. The fact that the price of oil is now approximately triple what it was before the war ought to tell us that someone is benefiting. But who? Is it you and me? Or is it politically connected big-wigs such as oil company shareholders and executives? The oil will always be for sale. Even if unfriendly regimes sit on the wells and sell only to others, it will free up other supplies elsewhere in the market and we’ll be just fine.
It is a mistake to think of Ron Paul’s foreign policy as some sort of liberal exception to the rest of his conservative outlook. Instead, his views follow the tradition of the Old Right Taft Republicans. They opposed foreign interventionism for the same reason America’s founders did – out of caution for the inevitable domestic detriments that accompany permanent military establishments. It has only been since the Vietnam War era that the antiwar position has been perceived as the province of hippies and leftists. Paul’s prescriptions for dealing with the world are the most conservative in the race. Meanwhile, the current National Security Strategy – unlikely to change substantively under Giuliani, Romney or Hillary administrations – is itself a radical doctrine, called “Hard Wilsonianism” by its closest adherents. Paul’s policy is to pull back the empire in order to preserve the republic and the Constitution from the radical changes brought about by avoidable conflict. These are conservative principles of independence and prudence, friendly relations and open trade. As Gov. George W. Bush once advised,
“[U]se of the military needs to be in our vital interest, the mission needs to be clear, and the exit strategy obvious. … I think one way for us to end up being viewed as the ugly American is for us to go around the world saying, ‘We do it this way. So should you.’ … I think the United States must be humble … in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course.”
Sooner or later the U.S. must leave Iraq – for financial reasons if nothing else – and the jihadists will attempt to claim credit for it no matter when it happens. Leaving Iraq and the larger Middle East as a matter of principle, however, is the only way to do so with any hope of restoring some of the integrity that has been lost since the invasion. Dr. Paul believes we have no business maintaining a world empire and that its consequences cost us far more than the gains. A withdrawal from Iraq under a Ron Paul administration would not be a victory for the terrorists, but an event to which they quickly become irrelevant bystanders.
When someone finally captures or kills Osama bin Laden and his few hundred followers, the larger “Global War on Terrorism” must end as well. The sooner the U.S. disengages from the Middle East, the quicker al Qaeda’s support will dry up. International cooperation from the various national police forces and intelligence agencies will be plenty to handle the problem. The more America intervenes in the affairs of others, the more blowback we can expect to suffer, but it is not too late to put our country back on the right track.
Thanks to Chad McMahill for helping to edit this article.
November 28, 2007