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Prior to and during the first phase of the war with Iraq, some of us warned that overthrowing Saddam would turn Mesopotamia into a happy hunting ground for non-state, Fourth Generation forces, aka “terrorists.” According to America’s viceroy in Baghdad, Mr. Paul Bremer, we were right. In the Cleveland Plain Dealer of August 24, Mr. Bremer, referring to the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, said, “We are constantly working to refine and upgrade our intelligence capability, particularly in light of the terrorist threat in Iraq. Iraq has become a new field of battle in this worldwide terrorism fight.”
The key word in that quotation is “new.” As Mr. Bremer seems to recognize, Iraq was not a place that welcomed terrorists when old Saddam was in power. Dictators seldom offer warm hospitality to elements whose goal is the destruction of states. Bush Administration statements that Saddam was working with al Qaeda turned out to be nonsense. Now, however, thanks to the fact that America destroyed the Iraqi state, Mesopotamia is acting as a magnet to Islamic non-state fighters of every stripe. We opened Iraq’s door to all our worst enemies.
Unfortunately, we cannot turn back the clock and recreate the Iraqi state, as the failure of our efforts to date demonstrate. So what should we do?
The official answer, predictably, is “stay the course.” Having turned Iraq into a haven for terrorists, we need to stay there until we fight and defeat them. This is not likely to work. The problem is that our presence in Iraq does not merely draw terrorists — it generates them. The American occupation of Iraq is the same kind of priceless gift to Osama and company that the Allied demand for unconditional surrender in World War II was to Goebbels. It is the enemy’s best recruiting poster.
A better answer–there is no really good answer, other than not to have destroyed the Iraqi state in the first place–is to get out and let the non-state elements in Iraq turn their energies on each other. The only thing that unifies them is our presence. The “stay the course” crowd argues that if we leave Iraq, chaos will follow. That is almost certainly true. But that chaos could be to our net advantage, despite its effect on world oil prices.
Some might call such a move Machiavellian, but a better byword would be Byzantine. Byzantium survived for a thousand years after the western Roman Empire fell, and she did so despite the fact that her own military was usually not very strong. The Byzantines, like the Chinese, believed in using barbarians to fight barbarians. When a powerful Balkan tribe threatened Byzantium, her usual response was to do her best to get that tribe into a war with a neighboring tribe. Often, an imperial messenger would arrive at the troublesome tribe’s camp, all beaten and bloody. He would say to the chief, “The Emperor sent me to you with his warmest greetings and great gifts as tokens of his esteem. But your neighbors took the gifts and did this to me.” Bingo, Byzantium had the local war she needed to take the pressure off her cataphracts.
If we take the advice to “stay the course” in Iraq, I fear we will be following another Greek precedent, one far less happy: Athens’ Syracuse Expedition. In her 30-year war with Sparta, Athens was winning until she decided, pretty much on a whim, to attack the Greek city-state of Syracuse on Sicily. Syracuse was at best peripheral to the war with Sparta, so an Athenian victory there would have meant little. As it turned out, Athens was beaten, and the defeat so weakened her that she never recovered. In the end, Athens was beaten by Sparta as well.
Will we choose to be Byzantines or Athenians? One fact that points to the probable answer is that Athens, too, was a democracy.
WILLIAM S. LIND is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism.