What You Look For Is What You Get?

Ok, I’m feeling in a wicked mood today, so how about something really controversial (just for a change). It’s now as near to official as we’re going to get it that Sadam Hussein wasn’t making any serious advance towards the development of WMDs.

So, this being the case, what exactly is going on in Iraq?

Now the first serious runner to be considered would be the idea that we were busily trying to introduce democracy. But as American strategic thinking seems to have recognised from the days of Bush the father, this is not a very realistic objective. To put this in some ‘fair-and-balanced’ context, we are here in the EU still hotly debating whether Turkey will by 2015 be able to meet the democratic criteria for full EU membership. Now Turkey is one hell of the way further down the road than Iraq is. So what exactly would be the timescale for having a functioning democracy in Iraq? A long one, I would suggest.

Now I find it hard to believe that major Bush administration advisers would not have been aware of this difficulty. One thing is what the spin specialists say in public, and another is what is actually said behind closed doors. Dick Cheney may be many things (depending on your point of view), but one think I think he isn’t is stupid.

Then there is oil. Of course Iraq’s oil reserves and their geopolitical consequences inevitably form the backdrop of any ‘Iraq policy’, but I personally have resisted the idea that this was all simply about oil. And if I look at what is happening to global oil markets right now I can see why I thought this. With oil currently pushing above the 52 dollar a barrel mark, it is hardly credible to see what is happening in Iraq as a viable petroleum policy. Sure the underlying cause is a secular rise in the demand for oil from growing economies like India and China, and sure the proximate causes in recent weeks have been hurricanes, shenanikins in Russia and insurgency in Nigeria. But the reason the markets are so sensitive is cleary ‘political instability’ in the Middle East with Iraq its centre. And with nothing but uncertainty on the horizon going forward this problem is in all probability only going to worsen. So it’s really hard to see a rock-bottom oil justification.

The idealist in me had considered the possibility (possibly my rational expectations prejudice) that bringing peace nearer in the Israel-Palestine situation might have played a part. Taking out Saddam should have given greater security to Israel, and this might have made it easier to impose one of those ‘road maps’, but again there is little evidence for that hypothesis.

But there is one area where Bush policy might be considered to be working: it’s called Homeland Security. Whatever the reservations about the efficacy of policy prior to 09/11, one thing is clear: the US has remained free from internal terrorist attack since. This is obviously one of the strong claims about his leadership that ‘Bush the son’ is making in the context of the upcoming elections. Now what am I getting at here?

Well, let’s step back a bit and pick up another thread that has long been puzzling me: just what was OBL up to when he launched the attack on the WTC in September 2001?

Well obviously here there are no clear answers. We are all reduced to guessing. It does seem plausible, however, that he anticipated the forthcoming strile against Afghanistan, and the remarkable thing about that strike, with the benefit of hindsight, was how little resistance was actually offered, and how little ongoing violence – apart from the odd skirmish – has actually ensued.

Now the interesting, 1 billion dollar question, is: did he also forsee a US lead Iraq invasion? If he did, and it is of course a big if, then a lot of other things suddenly become a lot clearer.

Now Joseph White, Director of the Center for Policy Studies at Case Western Reserve University, in a really interesting guest editorial on Informed Comment (which really started me thinking about this post and which I will now quote at length) has obviously been asking himself similar questions:

The U.S. was attacked by Al Qaeda, not Saddam Hussein. That?s a truism, though apparently unrecognized by the Vice President. The larger context is that Al Qaeda is part of a Sunni fundamentalist movement that, for lack of an agreed term, I?ll call the jihadis. This movement believes the Arab world would be restored to greatness if it was governed by a medieval vision of Islam. It has tried to seize power in many countries across the Arab and Muslim worlds. But it had been defeated everywhere except Afghanistan ? partly because of repression by regimes allied with the U.S., and partly because, though many people in those countries hate their governments, they also did not want such an extreme Islamic government.

So Osama bin Laden decided to change the subject. By attacking the U.S., he wanted to turn widespread resentment of the U.S., a feeling of humiliation by the westerners, into a reason to support the broader jihadist agenda. His message was that fundamentalists were standing up to the western infidels, so all good Muslims should support them.

Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with that. Saddam Hussein is a Baathist, an Arab Nationalist. Osama bin Laden called Saddam an ?infidel? and Saddam brutally repressed the Sunni fundamentalists, along with everyone else. Saddam was one of a bunch of people in the Middle East who didn?t like us but didn?t like Al Qaeda either. The Iranian Mullahs, for example, are Shiite fundamentalists. Sunni extremists like Osama view the Shia as heretics or schismatics. It?s much like how Catholics viewed Protestants during the Reformation ? which led to over a century of religious wars in Europe. Even in Iraq some of the bombings have been Sunnis blowing up Shia.

So attacking Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with attacking Osama. In fact, it was exactly what Osama would want. First, it got rid of one of his enemies in the Arab world. More important, the American invasion of Iraq gave him an opportunity to get allies in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Whilst emphasising that this is purely speculative I will now let myself go one step further than Joseph White and ask: could OBL have imagined that by drawing the US into Iraq he could also have created the conditions where Al Qaeda operatives would have the opportunity to engage US ‘assets’ in a high profile environment which would be more favourable than any other which was available at the time?

It is certainly striking how at the same time as Al Qaeda violence has been remarkably contained in many parts of the world, the spiral of violence as gone onwards and upwards in Iraq. Could Iraq be a kind of magnet which is drawing in would-be Jihadists from all over the Middle East?

Which brings me back to the main topic of the post: is all the above also really obvious from the priviledged vantage point of the oval office? Is ‘the battle for Iraq’, by attracting much of the global terrorist potential to one venue, now an integral part of US Homeland Security policy?

If it is, it could be seen as being remarkably effective. Of course, the ethics of ‘fighting this out’ in someone else’s country are another question entirely.

I said I was in a wicked mood.

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About Edward Hugh

Edward 'the bonobo is a Catalan economist of British extraction. After being born, brought-up and educated in the United Kingdom, Edward subsequently settled in Barcelona where he has now lived for over 15 years. As a consequence Edward considers himself to be "Catalan by adoption". He has also to some extent been "adopted by Catalonia", since throughout the current economic crisis he has been a constant voice on TV, radio and in the press arguing in favor of the need for some kind of internal devaluation if Spain wants to stay inside the Euro. By inclination he is a macro economist, but his obsession with trying to understand the economic impact of demographic changes has often taken him far from home, off and away from the more tranquil and placid pastures of the dismal science, into the bracken and thicket of demography, anthropology, biology, sociology and systems theory. All of which has lead him to ask himself whether Thomas Wolfe was not in fact right when he asserted that the fact of the matter is "you can never go home again".

19 thoughts on “What You Look For Is What You Get?

  1. The ‘flypaper’ theory is, like, so 2003.
    The problem with the theory is that it assumes that there is some fixed quantity of terrorist attacks that will occur. If you think that, it makes sense to try to shift those attacks from the US to somewhere else.
    But its a crazy assumption.
    1. The invasion of Iraq gave a lot of people a reason to attack the US, people who would not have attacked the US otherwise.
    2. There is no reason to believe that there were further terrorist attacks ready to go in the US, that were called off because the terrorists involved decided to go to Iraq instead.
    3. Madrid is not in Iraq.

  2. “The ‘flypaper’ theory is, like, so 2003.”

    Well thanks, I am not as far ‘behind the curve’ as I thought :).

    What I am asking, in my own way, is whether some people in the White House may not adhere to this theory, regardless of whether or not it is pass?e.
    “The invasion of Iraq gave a lot of people a reason to attack the US, people who would not have attacked the US otherwise.”

    I agree with this entirely. I am certainly not trying to justify the invasion of Iraq, I am trying to understand what is happening.

    “There is no reason to believe that there were further terrorist attacks ready to go in the US”

    Ready to go no, but there are reasons to think more would be forthcoming. Some version of the law of least effort suggests Iraq might be an easier venue. There is chaos, cover, and little worthwhile intelligence.

    “Madrid is not in Iraq.”

    This, unfortunately, I already know: I live in Spain. The remarkable thing, IMHO, is that since Madrid there have not been more such attacks inside the EU.

  3. “What I am asking, in my own way, is whether some people in the White House may not adhere to this theory, regardless of whether or not it is pass?e.”

    I think its unlikely in the extreme. The flaw in the theory, the idea that there are a fixed quantity of terrorists, is too obvious.

    (more attacks in the US) “Some version of the law of least effort suggests Iraq might be an easier venue. There is chaos, cover, and little worthwhile intelligence.”

    Its an easier venue for poor Iraqis who don’t have the resources to attack the US themselves, but they weren’t going to attack the US anyway. If you have the resources to attack the US on home soil, its going to cause much more ‘terror’ to do that, rather than to kill a few more US troops. I think the reason there haven’t been more such attacks is they’re hard to carry out, not that terrorists have stopped trying.

    If terrorists were going to abandon other projects in favour of soft targets in Iraq, Madrid would not have happened. But we should know that – there is not one unified and indistinguishable group of terrorists, there are lots of people with many different aims. Iraqi nationalists are attacking US forces in Iraq, not New York, because they care about the US forces in Iraq, not the people in New York.

  4. “The flaw in the theory, the idea that there are a fixed quantity of terrorists, is too obvious.”

    I don’t think there are a fixed quantity of terrorists, I think the invasion of Iraq has probably generated in its wake considerable extra support for Al Qaeda. Also rapidly rising populations in some areas of the world are also likely to increase the potential recruitment base.

    To use an economics analogy, there is no static ‘lump of labour’, but this doesn’t prevent job creation being concentrated in certain highly localised environments.

    “but they weren’t going to attack the US anyway”

    Obviously not, but this isn’t the argument. There is little evidence of an Al Qaeda presence in pre-invasion Iraq, there seems to be plenty of evidence for them being there now.

    “Iraqi nationalists are attacking US forces in Iraq”.

    I’m not talking about Iraqi nationalists, they would represent, if I am right, what could cynically be called ‘collateral damage’. The suicide bombers are probably not Iraqi nationalists, and the people who are blowing-up Shiite civilians certainly aren’t.

  5. This issue has been bugging me for quite some time. The flypaper theory appears to be nonsense to me since the terrorists -whoever they are nowadays- must know that their strength lies in decentralization and that they can never win a conventional war against the almighty US.
    Besides, the US needn’t have gone to Iraq to attract terrorists. There are plenty of US embassies and “trade posts” scattered around the globe.
    Did OBL lure the US into Iraq in attempt to destabilize the Middle East? Hard to say.
    In that case OBL must have known somehow that the US were already aiming their guns at Iraq (after Afghanistan) before 9-11 and he just pulled the trigger.
    My guess is some people in the US administration simply used 9-11 as an excuse to extend and consolidate US power in strategic regions. If they could make the case, and as far as Iraq is concerned they did not, that the US was in grave danger who would be able to argue that their actions were not legit?
    I think France, Germany and Russia saw this coming and therefore opposed solitary US intervention from the get-go.
    If democracy and freedom were such big concerns, and they never are in my uninformed opinion, then why not stabilize Afghanistan first before venturing into WMD-free Iraq?
    Simply put, there was too much rhetoric and not enough substance coming from the Bush administration right before the invasion of Iraq to make “a humanitarian” and/or “preemptive” intervention believable. I fear the US has Europe by the short and curlies, and we shall find out soon enough.

  6. “There is little evidence of an Al Qaeda presence in pre-invasion Iraq, there seems to be plenty of evidence for them being there now.”

    What evidence is that that most/many of the attacks in Iraq are being carried out by AQ people? Is there any evidence of a chain of command? If there are AQ people there, are they new Iraqi recruits or are they (demonstrably) AQ people who were working on other projects elsewhere?

    “The suicide bombers are probably not Iraqi nationalists, and the people who are blowing-up Shiite civilians certainly aren’t.”

    I was using ‘Iraqi nationalists’ as shorthand for ‘people whose major political desire is to get the US out of Iraq’*. I think most of the attacks on the US in Iraq are coming from people like that, rather than people who were going to attack the US anyway, wherever was handy.

    Anyway, the general question is ‘why did the US invade?’. I think the answer is a combination of ‘to show that it could’, and ‘to install a government that would be dependent on the US, and thus a steady supplier of oil’.

    * and continuing the ‘terrorists come in different flavours’ theme, many of these people would disagree about what should replace the US.

  7. As others have pointed out, there are multiple groups with multiple agendas that are all lumped together under the rubric of “Islamic terrorism”.
    Clearly most of these are motivated by what is happening in their backyards, and that is where they are attacking.
    As for the larger question of why do such grand strategists as may exist within these groups not attack the US, perhaps their feeling is that they don’t need to. The US, by every objective measure, is doing ever more to destroy itself every day via debt (personal, corporate and government), poorly thought out tax structure, inadequate infrastructure, health and education; the list goes on. Sure an attack in the US might swing things for another election of GWB — but it also might not; it’s not obvious how that would play out. I suspect the grand goal is clearly to keep GWB and his merry twits in power for at least four more years; the issue is then one of strategy — what’s most likely to achieve this goal?

  8. I’m not sure that there had to be a single coherent reason for the Iraq invasion. I can believe that Paul Wolfowitz believed in democratisation, that Cheney believed in oil that various people wanted to send messages to Iran and Syria, that Karl Rove needed the administration to appear active and to fit things into the electoral schedule and that Gearge Bush wanted revenge for Pop. With a healthy dose of hubris there would be no need to resolve the conflicts implicit in the different stories. I think this idea is supported by the protean explanations given at the time and since.

    On the other side of the equation if you don’t assume that OBL is stupid or irrational I can’t see that there is much to take exception to in your thesis.

    Spectacular as 9/11 was it made barely a dent in the economy of the US and did no strategic damage. OBL surely knew that and must therefore have had another purpose in mind. Common sense and OBL’s expllicit statements suggest that his goals were closer to home (his). Terrorists from Nelson Mandela to Gerry Adams have explained the purpose of terrorist activity as being to provoke an overreaction which will galvanise the passive majority and to demonstrate potency which will allow people to feel that it is worth continuing to struggle (I have heard the intifada explained in terms of the works of Jean Genet as an act of self assertion!). I’m not sure that they would have banked on anything as specific as an invasion of Iraq but they would have assumed that the US President would be playing to the home audience.

    In the explicit goal of getting US troops out of Saudi Arabia OBL has succeeded and may yet successfully destabilise that country which is indeed at terrifying prospect. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that we have done exactly what he wanted.

    In short it is hard to be convinced by any alternative explanation.

  9. “In that case OBL must have known somehow that the US were already aiming their guns at Iraq (after Afghanistan) before 9-11 and he just pulled the trigger.”

    Huh? I think the evidence is fairly clear that OBL didn’t even think we would invade Afghanistan when he was planning 9-11. The idea that he was trying to trick us into Iraq seems wildly far-fetched to me.

  10. The OBL theory is interesting (far-fetched, yes, but it almost makes sense). But what concerns me is the assumption that, since the Iraq fiasco has not done anything good for world oil prices or the Americans’ control over them, therefore the war couldn’t have really been about oil. Couldn’t it be that it was indeed mostly about oil, and that the Americans fully believed they’d have it all neatly wrapped up in a few weeks? Even if oil wasn’t the only reason to go into Iraq, it seems to have been a biggie, and the Americans so far haven’t got what they want.

  11. I agree with Sebastian in that I don’t think this is all an OBL master-plan. I’m not convinced by the brilliant tactical genius shtick. I reckon the guy just got lucky.

    On the other hand, I also agree with Jack that there wasn’t one reason (certainly not one coherent reason) for the US going to war. No one theory makes sense, but if you just assume they all went along with it for their own reasons it all kinda works.

  12. “I agree with Sebastian in that I don’t think this is all an OBL master-plan”

    OK this is fair enough, let’s weaken the hypothesis a bit.

    “No one theory makes sense, but if you just assume they all went along with it for their own reasons it all kinda works”

    (Which I think is quite realistic in the US context, I am perhaps thinking of how the ongoing mess might be being pragmatically rationalised in the Washington of the present. I think the claim by the ‘commander in chief’ that he has kept US soil free of subsequent terrorist attack is politically important to him right now, it is his one *strong* argument going into the elections).

    But lets apply the same criteria to the other players, perhaps the attack was carried out not just for one, but for many reasons, amongst which might have been getting a high profile theatre in the middle east.

    Of course todays ex-Iraq terrorist attacks also make some of my points weaker, clearly there are multiple foci, but consider this: if we are generally agreed that the claim that the Iraq invasion has likely increased rather than reduced the flow of Al Qaeda volunteers, where is the evidence for this on the ground?

    Obviously Pakistan would be one place. (But don’t lose the point that many of the victims of terrorist attacks in Pakistan are Shiite, in some eyes at least this will have an Iraq connection). Indonesia another, and today Egypt maybe another.

    But Europe and the US are (thank god) remarkably spared at present. Partly (hopefully) this is due to another dimension of the situation: improved security. But possibly partly (and only partly) it is due to some of the ‘usual suspects’ being busily engaged elswhere, and the logistical strain that keeping all this going involves on Al Qaeda infrastructure.

  13. Sebastian, I doubt that OBL knew exactly what would happen but I think it was clear that it was designed to provoke.

    Even so it wouldn’t have taken a genius to note how many administration members were signatories of the various PNAC documents calling for direct action in Iraq. It certainly seems that some AQ people had web browsers.

  14. “But possibly partly (and only partly) it is due to some of the ?usual suspects? being busily engaged elswhere, and the logistical strain that keeping all this going involves on Al Qaeda infrastructure.”

    I think you’re really overestimating the degree to which AQ has an infrastructure. If there’s anything that all the AQ observers have agreed on, its that AQ is a bunch of loosely connected cells. Which means that bombings in Egypt don’t place a strain on the infrastructure in Afghanistan, and vice versa.

    Also, there is a considerable difference between ‘Bush invaded Iraq to focus terrorist activity there, instead of on the US’, your original point, and “how the ongoing mess might be being pragmatically rationalised in the Washington of the present”.

  15. The claim of “no attack within the U.S. since Sept of 2001” being a victory for Homeland Security is ludicrous.

    After the 1993 attack, the next attack on U.S. soil was–eight years later. The next attack on U.S. forces (the Cole) was five years later. And this was under a president who–we are supposed to believe–was “soft on terror.”

    It would also be difficult not to note that the U.S. military’s list of “forces making it difficult for us to run elections for the people we support and other insurgents” does NOT include Al Queda.

    It’s more believable that the well-connected Saudi whose family flew when the rest of us could not had information that Iraq would be attacked than to believe that 3 years wihtout attack means that Homeland Security is anything other than a bloated piece of mismanagement.

  16. I’m surprised that so many anti-Americans here skirt the real issue that I, as an American, am sure of: the US saw the forced democratization of Iraq as a way to give the Arab World an obsession that has more merit than having Arabs obsess about the neverending Israeli-Palestinian struggle. And, it seems to be working, – even Palestinians are complaining that they don’t get enough air time in Arab Media, now that Iraqis are in the limelight.

    The flypaper theory can be flippantly dismissed, but it was one of the cornerstone ideas behind regime change, even before 9/11. The neocons were aware that Al Qaeda was attempting to link its struggle against the US with America’s support for Israel. The question in 1998-2000 was that if the US, basing the legal argument for hostilities against Iraq on Saddam’s break of the 1992 ceasefire – did succeed in regime change, what then? By then the African embassy bombings, and Cole, had happened, and it became clear that if terrorists were attracted to a post-Saddam Iraq, Arabs would have to come to terms with terror in their midst, and eventually some pro-reform, pro-democracy movements could possibly be coaxed from various sectors of pan-Arab society. It was a risk, and as such it was not very popular yet in Washington.

    9/11, of course, gave urgency, and opportunity. Now the Administration had the moral argument and justification to go in and right what is wrong in the first place. It was also clear that the various safeguards of international law had been a dismal failure, and could be justifiably ignored. And in the heady days of post-9/11, only the neocons had a plan of action ready that was radical, and world-changing. And the rest is history. But let’s be clear about it: the flypaper theory was there before 9/11, and Iraq has become the battleground of choice for Muslim extremists.

    As to OBL, all eyewitness accounts from captured Al Qaeda sources indicate that he was truly surprised by the American strike into Afghanistan. I also suppose he’s been surprised by the strike into Iraq, but here he has actually helped American policy in exhorting his flies to the festering conflict. So no, I don’t think he has enough foresight to anticipate American moves. It seems that the Administration anticipated his moves on that aspect well enough.

    It remains to be seen how many Muslims will have to die until they finally realize what they are doing to each other. It’s brutal, but only equal in brutality to 9/11, which was so relished throughout the Muslim world – and some parts of Europe.

  17. RSN, why do you think that OBL wanted to attack the World Trade Centre?

    By what definition of equal in brutality to 9/11 are 20,00 deaths?

    Is it really OK to be as brutal as OBL? If so what are you fighing for?

  18. “But let?s be clear about it: the flypaper theory was there before 9/11”

    Then it should be fairly easy to find examples of people proposing it before 9/11, shouldn’t it? Or of people proposing it in the run-up to the war, saying “even if we don’t manage to create a democratic state in Iraq, we will succeed in bringing the problem of terrorism home to Arabic countries, and diverting attacks from the US.” Because I didn’t see the theory being aired until after the invasion.

  19. Well according the a stink tank:

    AP – The war in Iraq did not damage international terror groups, but instead distracted the United States from confronting other hotbeds of Islamic militancy and actually “created momentum” for many terrorists, a top Israeli security think tank said in a report released Monday.

    President Bush has called the war in Iraq an integral part of the war on terrorism, saying that deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein hoped to develop unconventional weapons and could have given them to Islamic militants across the world.

    But the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University said that instead of striking a blow against Islamic extremists, the Iraq war “has created momentum for many terrorist elements, but chiefly al-Qaida and its affiliates.”

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