A Safer World

Robert Alt

March 1, 2004

Baghdad, Iraq — I awoke early this morning to the sound of a rocket hitting my hotel. To be more precise, the explosion sounded just four floors directly above my room. The missile landed in an unoccupied area, doing little more than cracking concrete, shattering glass, and rattling nerves. Welcome to Iraq, or as President Bush has accurately called it, the central front in the war against terrorists.

The number of terrorist attacks here is on the rise, and senior Coalition officials believe that the attacks will continue to increase as the June 30, 2004, deadline for transitioning power from the Coalition to the Iraqis approaches. In response to the increased violence in Iraq and the recent terrorist attack in Spain, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin told Le Monde that the Iraq war “has not made the world safer.” After all, reasoned Villepin, “[t]errorism didn’t exist in Iraq before.” This sentiment was echoed by European Commission President Romano Prodi, who argued that the Iraq war has hindered European efforts to crush terror networks.

These are bold claims, and certainly worth examining. As a preliminary matter, the claim that the war did not make the world safer is both comparative and speculative. Safer than what? As evidenced by what? Villepin assumes that terrorist activity would have remained constant or stable in the absence of military action. There is nothing to support this claim. Indeed, the evidence weighs heavily in favor of instability absent U.S. action in Iraq. As we now know, Iraq was a haven for international terrorists including the likes of Abu Musab al-Zarkawi and Abu Nidal. In order for Villepin’s assumption to be correct, we must assume that these men would have sat on their hands unless and until the Coalition entered Iraq. This is the sort of mental laziness that gives “assumptions” a bad name.

Then there is Saddam himself. Even if no poison gas has been found within Iraq’s borders, we now know that Saddam assisted al Qaeda in the production of VX gas in Sudan. He was clearly sympathetic to the terrorists’ cause, permitting training camps to openly operate in the north. And does anyone really doubt that Saddam would have restarted his chemical, biological, and nuclear-weapons programs at the first available instant? This is Villepin’s safer world.

Admittedly, the war has made Iraq the focal point for terrorism, as anyone who has spent time on the ground in Iraq can attest. But does this really make the world less safe? To the contrary, there is reason to believe that focusing the terrorists’ efforts in Iraq may have made the world as a whole more safe. First, terrorist resources are not infinite. If they are focusing in Iraq, then they cannot be expending as much effort finding the next plane to hijack or train to bomb. While this sounds bad for the Iraqis, there is the bright side even there: Not only are the terrorists concentrated in Iraq, but so is the Coalition. More than 100,000 Coalition forces currently reside in Iraq. These troops are actively hunting down terrorists for detention or elimination. In the last eight days alone, Operation Iron Promise, a special antiterrorism detail in Baghdad, has captured 129 potential terrorists, and has confiscated large amounts of IED materials, rockets, and mortar rounds. They are operating with increasingly reliable intelligence, as more and more Iraqis step forward with information about criminals in their midst.

Of course, it is impossible to guard against every attack. And with each additional bombing, there will be cries that the world is less safe. But the reasoning behind these claims is similar to the dangerous sentiment that motivated some in the Spanish election: If only we ignore the terrorists, maybe they will go away. This is the dubious policy which gave us 9/11 after the first World Trade Center bombing. It would be good for us (all) not to make that mistake again.

Robert Alt is a Fellow in Legal and International Affairs at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and is currently reporting from Iraq. You can follow his daily progress at noleftturns.ashbrook.org.