A Good Estimate

Thursday, September 28, 2006

THOUGH IT undermined some of his rhetoric, President Bush was right to declassify and release the intelligence community's most recent estimate of global terrorism. The three-page summary of "key judgments," originally delivered to the White House in April, provides a clear, reasoned and sobering account of the state of the Islamic extremist threat five years after Sept. 11, 2001. Its release ought to deepen rather than inflame the debate in Washington -- if only because the assessment is far superior to that being retailed to the country by the president or by most Democrats.

The bad news in the report -- and there is a lot of it -- is that U.S. intelligence agencies believe that the number of Islamic "jihadists" is growing and that the threat is spreading to more countries, particularly in Europe. The Iraq conflict, it says, "has become the 'cause celebre' " for such militants, and "the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives." If current trends continue, the report predicts "increasing attacks worldwide."

These grim conclusions are hard to square with Mr. Bush's contention that the country is "safer" today than it was five years ago or that the invasion of Iraq helped rather than hindered the fight against terrorism. In fact, the president seems unwilling to accept the conclusions of the intelligence professionals. On Tuesday he said it is naive to think that terrorism would be less pervasive if the invasion of Iraq had not taken place.

Democrats are citing the intelligence estimate as proof that Iraq has been a catastrophe. Those among them who prophesied four years ago that an invasion would provide new recruits for al-Qaeda's cause can justifiably claim some vindication. But the report also poses problems for Democratic leaders such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), who say the solution in Iraq is an early withdrawal of U.S. troops. The report supports Mr. Bush's contention that Iraq is now a central front in the war on terrorism; it says "perceived jihadist success there would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere," while defeat would mean that "fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight."

The larger thrust of the report goes well beyond Iraq or the cacophony of the midterm election campaign. It says "the most powerful weapon in the war on terror" over time will be not military success in Iraq or the capturing and killing of al-Qaeda leaders, but "the Muslim mainstream." The vast majority of Muslims are likely to reject the extreme political solutions proposed by al-Qaeda and its allies, and they will be more likely to do so if "democratic reform efforts in Muslim-majority nations progress" and entrenched problems of "corruption, injustice, and fear of Western domination" are alleviated.

The U.S. mission in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein has been largely aimed at those goals, in one of the Muslim world's most important countries. It should be little wonder that the effort, like U.S. promotion of democracy in Lebanon and within the Palestinian Authority, has provoked an extremist backlash. Were it to retreat altogether from the Middle East, the United States could probably reduce the number of Islamic extremist recruits in the next five years. Yet any careful reader of the intelligence estimate will find it hard to conclude that the war can be won that way.

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