More Leaks, Please

By Robert Kagan
Tuesday, September 26, 2006

It's too bad we won't get to see the full National Intelligence Estimate on "Trends in Global Terrorism" selectively leaked to The Post and the New York Times last week. The Times headline read "Spy Agencies Say Iraq War Worsens Terrorism Threat." But there were no quotations from the NIE itself, so all we have are journalists' characterizations of anonymous comments by government officials, whose motives and reliability we can't judge, about intelligence assessments whose logic and argument, as well as factual basis, we have no way of knowing or gauging. Based on the press coverage alone, the NIE's judgment seems both impressionistic and imprecise. On such an important topic, it would be nice to have answers to a few questions.

For instance, what specifically does it mean to say that the Iraq war has worsened the "terrorism threat"? Presumably, the NIE's authors would admit that this is speculation rather than a statement of fact, since the facts suggest otherwise. Before the Iraq war, the United States suffered a series of terrorist attacks: the bombing and destruction of two American embassies in East Africa in 1998, the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in 2000, and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Since the Iraq war started, there have not been any successful terrorist attacks against the United States. That doesn't mean the threat has diminished because of the Iraq war, but it does place the burden of proof on those who argue that it has increased.

Probably what the NIE's authors mean is not that the Iraq war has increased the actual threat. According to the Times, the report is agnostic on whether another terrorist attack is more or less likely. Rather, its authors claim that the war has increased the number of potential terrorists. Unfortunately, neither The Post nor the Times provides any figures to support this. Does the NIE? Or are its authors simply assuming that because Muslims have been angered by the war, some percentage of them must be joining the ranks of terrorists?

As a poor substitute for actual figures, The Post notes that, according to the NIE, members of terrorist cells post messages on their Web sites depicting the Iraq war as "a Western attempt to conquer Islam." No doubt they do. But to move from that observation to the conclusion that the Iraq war has increased the terrorist threat requires answering a few additional questions: How many new terrorists are there? How many of the new terrorists became terrorists because they read the messages on the Web sites? And of those, how many were motivated by the Iraq war as opposed to, say, the war in Afghanistan, or the Danish cartoons, or the Israel-Palestine conflict, or their dislike for the Saudi royal family or Hosni Mubarak, or, more recently, the comments of the pope? Perhaps our intelligence agencies have discovered a way to examine, measure and then rank the motives that drive people to become terrorists, though I tend to doubt it. But any serious and useful assessment of the effect of the Iraq war would, at a minimum, try to isolate the effect of the war from everything else that is and has been going on to stir Muslim anger. Did the NIE attempt to make that calculation?

Such an assessment would also require some estimate of what the terrorist threat would look like today if the war had not happened. For instance, did the authors of the NIE calculate the effect of the Sept. 11 attacks on the recruitment of terrorists or the effect of the bombings in Madrid and London? It is certainly possible that these events produced an increase in would-be terrorists by showing the possibility of sensational success. So if there is an overall increase, how much of it was the result of Iraq or the Danish cartoons or other perceived Western offenses against Islam, and how much of it is a continuing response to al-Qaeda's own terrorist successes before, on and after Sept. 11?

Finally, a serious evaluation of the effect of the Iraq war would have to address the Bush administration's argument that it is better to fight terrorist recruits in Iraq than in the United States. This may or may not be true, although again the administration would seem to have the stronger claim at the moment. But a serious study would have to measure the numbers of terrorists engaged in Iraq, and the numbers who may have been killed in Iraq, against any increase in the numbers of active terrorists outside Iraq as a result of the war. Did the NIE make such a calculation?

There is, in addition to all this, a question of context. What should we do if we believe certain actions might inspire some people to become potential terrorists? Should we always refrain from taking those actions, or are there cases in which we may want to act anyway? We have pretty good reason to believe, for instance, that the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and the continuing presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia after the war, was a big factor in the evolution of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. We are pretty sure that American support of the Afghan mujaheddin against the Soviet occupation forces in the late 1970s and early '80s also contributed to the growth of Islamic terrorism.

Knowing this, would we now say that we made a mistake in each of those cases? Would an NIE argue that we would be safer today if we had not helped drive the Soviets from Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein from Kuwait? The argument in both cases would be at least as sound as the argument about the most recent Iraq war.

In fact, the question of what actions make us safer cannot be answered simply by counting the number of new terrorist recruits those actions may inspire, even if we could make such a count with any confidence. I would worry about an American foreign policy driven only by fear of how our actions might inspire anger, radicalism and violence in others. As in the past, that should be only one calculation in our judgment of what does and does not make us, and the world, safer.

Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, writes a monthly column for The Post. His book "Dangerous Nation," a history of American foreign policy, will be published next month.

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