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Wrong War In The Wrong Place

September 15  2003

In making the case for staying the course in Iraq, the White House has begun invoking the specters of Somalia and Lebanon.

What happened there?

In 1983, after 241 U.S. Marines were massacred in a truck bombing at the Beirut barracks, President Reagan pulled all the Marines out. In 1993, when 18 Army Rangers lost their lives in the "Black Hawk Down" firefight in Mogadishu, President Clinton pulled all U.S. forces out of Somalia.

We cut and ran, say the president's men. These retreats convinced our enemies we cannot stand casualties and will cut and run if enough American blood can be spilled.

Iraq is thus where we must stand and fight. For if we do not defeat the terrorists there, we will have to fight them in our cities.

So runs the argument. The natural response of Americans is to nod in agreement. After all, we Americans are not cowards. When attacked, we fight as long as we have to, and we win our wars.

But our enemies know us better than we know ourselves. We are reacting exactly as they anticipated and doing exactly what they want. Full of wounded pride and outraged patriotism, we lunged right into the trap baited for us on Sept. 11.

The terrorists who drove those airliners into the Pentagon and World Trade Center did not expect to bring down the U.S. government or force the surrender of the United States. They are fanatics, not fools. The wanted to wound, bleed and provoke America into lashing out.

The ultimate war aims of Osama's jihad are to drive us off the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia, expel Israel from Palestine and Jerusalem, and end U.S. hegemony in the Middle East. But the tactical objective of 9-11 was to goad us into crashing into the Islamic world in search of revenge.

Our smashing of Iraq and our huge military footprint there now have turned millions of Muslims against us and forced friendly Arab regimes into making a painful choice: Side with America and face the resentment of your countrymen, or separate and risk alienating the superpower upon whom your survival depends.

To save themselves from Islamic wrath, the Saudis told us to take our troops out of their country, and the Turks, our old allies, refused even with huge bribes to join our invasion.

By sending an American army to occupy Baghdad, the seat of the caliphate for 500 years, we played into al-Qaida's hands. We are where they want us. We are where they can get at us. We are where they can kill us on their timetable, on their own turf.

Repeatedly, before the invasion, President Bush was warned against imitating Ariel Sharon when he crashed into Lebanon in 1982. Raging Bull himself created Hezbollah, which then drove Israel out with the same guerrilla tactics now being used against us in Iraq.

But the president did not listen. Instead, like Pinnochio heeding the lazy and roguish Candlewick and heading off for Funland, where both were turned into donkeys, he heeded the neocons, who whispered in his ear about his being the Churchill of his time, who would strangle Islamofascism in the cradle the way our fathers should have strangled Nazism. When we march in, the neocons assured him, we will be welcomed as liberators, Muslim nations will fall like dominoes to democracy and peace will reign in the Mideast.

Now we are in a sand trap. And the question the president and Congress must answer is: Do we go in deeper? Do we pour in whatever money and blood are needed to fight on to victory in a land where we are not loved and where the enemy can fight the kind of war Islamic warriors have fought successfully against the French in Algeria, the Russians in Afghanistan and the Israelis in Lebanon. Or do we disengage, accept the humiliation of an American withdrawal and choose a different battlefield on which to fight al-Qaida?

Which brings us back to Somalia and Lebanon.

The mistake Reagan made in Lebanon was not in pulling out, but in going in. There was no vital U.S. interest in Beirut, no threat to our security. The same was true of Somalia. When we moved beyond giving food to starving Somalis to deciding what warlord should rule in Mogadishu, we intervened in a civil war and paid the inevitable price.

Whether Iraq is a democracy or dictatorship isn't our concern. Our concern should be: Does Iraq threaten America's vital interests? Before our invasion, we now know, it did not.

But, like a bad marriage, the mistake was going in, in the first place, and now, there is no easy way out. If we pull out, Iraq could become a failed state and a haven for Islamic warriors. If we stay and fight, we may be plunging into an endless or unwinnable war.

Somewhere, Osama bin Laden is saying to himself, "Mission accomplished."

2003 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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