Friday, April 18, 2008

Oversimplifying the Threat? McCain, Iraq, and Al Qaeda

McCain Iraq/Al Qaeda

In an article that's got to rate up there with the Vicki Iseman lobbyist-scandal hit piece, the New York Times is now taking Senator John McCain to task for his frequent references to Al Qaeda as a shorthand for the threats facing the United States in Iraq and beyond:
As he campaigns with the weight of a deeply unpopular war on his shoulders, Senator John McCain of Arizona frequently uses the shorthand “Al Qaeda” to describe the enemy in Iraq in pressing to stay the course in the war there.

“Al Qaeda is on the run, but they’re not defeated” is his standard line on how things are going in Iraq. When chiding the Democrats for wanting to withdraw troops, he has been known to warn that “Al Qaeda will then have won.” In an attack this winter on Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, the Democratic front-runner, Mr. McCain went further, warning that if American forces withdrew, Al Qaeda would be “taking a country.”

Critics say that in framing the war that way at rallies or in sound bites, Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, is oversimplifying the hydra-headed nature of the insurgency in Iraq in a way that exploits the emotions that have been aroused by the name “Al Qaeda” since the Sept. 11 attacks.

There has been heated debate since the start of the war about the nature of the threat in Iraq. The Bush administration has long portrayed the fight as part of a broader battle against Islamic terrorists. Opponents of the war accuse the administration of deliberately blurring the distinction between the Sept. 11 attackers and anti-American forces in Iraq.

“The fundamental problem we face in Iraq is that there is not a single center of gravity, as in the cold war, but a whole constellation of contending forces,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism and counterinsurgency expert at Georgetown University. “This is much more fractionated than most people could imagine, with multiple, independent moving parts, and when you have that universe of networks, you can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach.”

The entity Mr. McCain was referring to — Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, also known as Al Qaeda in Iraq — did not exist until after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. The most recent National Intelligence Estimates consider it the most potent offshoot of Al Qaeda proper, the group led by Osama bin Laden that is now believed to be based on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

It is a largely homegrown and loosely organized group of Sunni Arabs that, according to the official American military view that Mr. McCain endorses, is led at least in part by foreign operatives and receives fighters, financing and direction from senior Qaeda leaders.

In longer discussions on the subject, Mr. McCain often goes into greater specificity about the entities jockeying for control in Iraq. Some other analysts do not object to Mr. McCain’s portraying the insurgency (or multiple insurgencies) in Iraq as that of Al Qaeda. They say he is using a “perfectly reasonable catchall phrase” that, although it may be out of place in an academic setting, is acceptable on the campaign trail, a place that “does not lend itself to long-winded explanations of what we really are facing,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, research director at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

But some students of the insurgency say Mr. McCain is making a dangerous generalization. “The U.S. has not been fighting Al Qaeda, it’s been fighting Iraqis,” said Juan Cole, a fierce critic of the war who is the author of “Sacred Space and Holy War: The Politics, Culture and History of Shi’ite Islam” and a professor of history at the University of Michigan. A member of Al Qaeda “is technically defined as someone who pledges fealty to Osama bin Laden and is given a terror operation to carry out. It’s kind of like the Mafia,” Mr. Cole said. “You make your bones, and you’re loyal to a capo. And I don’t know if anyone in Iraq quite fits that technical definition.”

Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is just one group, though a very lethal one, in the stew of competing Sunni insurgents, Shiite militias, Iranian-backed groups, criminal gangs and others that make up the insurgency in Iraq. That was vividly illustrated last month when the Iraqi Army’s unsuccessful effort to wrest control of Basra from the Shiite militia groups that hold sway there led to an explosion of violence.
From a journalistic perspective, perhaps there's a case to be made for parsing McCain's references to Al Qaeda.

But war opponents won't pay attention to academic debates arguing for understanding the conflict as a "a multifactional civil war."

For these nihilists - now railing against a McCain presidency as "four more years of Bush" - this article's perfect fodder for perpetuating angry, irrational attacks on McCain, the GOP, and pro-victory supporters of Iraq and the war on terror.

Keep in mind, McCain's on solid ground.
As Audrey Kurth Cronin noted, a couple of years back, at the beginning of Al Qaeda's emergence in Iraq:

As for al-Qaida becoming a full insurgency, some analysts believe this has already occurred. Certainly to the extent that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his associates in Iraq truly represent an arm of the movement (i.e., al-Qaida in Iraq), that transition is likewise well along. The alliance negotiated between bin Laden and al-Zarqawi is another example of an effective strategic and public relations move for both parties, giving new life to the al-Qaida movement at a time when its leaders are clearly on the run and providing legitimacy and fresh recruits for the insurgency in Iraq. As many commentators have observed, Iraq is an ideal focal point and training ground for this putative global insurgency. The glimmer of hope in this scenario, however, is that the foreigners associated with al-Qaida are not tied to the territory of Iraq in the same way the local population is, and the tensions that will arise between those who want a future for the nascent Iraqi state and those who want a proving ground for a largely alien ideology and virtual organization are likely to increase—especially as the victims of the civil war now unfolding there continue increasingly to be Iraqi civilians. The counter to al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq, as it is for other areas of the world with local al-Qaida afªliates, is to tap into the long-standing and deep association between peoples and their territory and to exploit the inevitable resentment toward foreign terrorist agendas, while scrupulously ensuring that the United States is not perceived to be part of those agendas.

Note too, that war opponents will relentlessly hammer McCain for "endless wars" (crying ceaselessly about how the U.S. invasion "created a terrorist breeding ground" in Baghdad).

But there's no need to argue the point, of course, for these attacks reflect pre-surge residual manifestations of Bush Derangement Syndrome.

The fact is that we have huge stakes in a continued successful deployment in Iraq, and we are likely to be in country for some time.

Indeed, the danger to the Iraqi people remains significant. As CNN reported this evening, in "
Al Qaeda planning Baghdad attacks, says U.S.," the terrorists are working up renewed waves of suicide attacks "in the near future."

McCain's correct to make the case that a surrender in Iraq would be disastrous for American national security.

A Democratic administration in power next January - committed to unconditional surrender - can't be viewed positively in the context of this continuing threat analysis.

See also, Memeorandum.

Photo Credit: "Senator John McCain, flanked by Senators Joseph I. Lieberman and Lindsey Graham, on a visit last month to Amman, Jordan," New York Times.