WHAT WE OWE IRAQ

War and the Ethics of Nation Building

By Noah Feldman. Princeton Univ. 154 pp. $19.95

BANKING ON BAGHDAD: Inside Iraq's 7,000-Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict

By Edwin Black. Wiley. 471 pp. $27.95

Many Americans don't understand what they're currently up against. Al Qaeda has often been depicted as the superpower of terrorist and jihadist networks, commanding the allegiance of jihadist groups throughout the world and influencing global terrorist operations through a steady flow of money and recruits. In fact, al Qaeda has become a relatively small operational component of a violent, global movement bent on waging holy war.

This jihadist movement, at the risk of oversimplification, can best be described as four concentric circles. The inner circle consists of the core of the al Qaeda organization, which now largely serves a symbolic, spiritual and ideological role in the greater jihadist movement. The second circle consists of active members and devotees of numerous jihadist groups that are often called "al Qaeda-related." The denizens of the second circle tend to be even more radical and dangerous than their inner-circle colleagues. The third circle consists of those who believe in the jihadist cause or identify with parts of its ideology; they may provide moral support, and some might offer a jihadist group logistical or financial help. The outer circle is the wider Islamic world. While the core of the jihadist movement consists of devoted terrorists, they depend on the less ideologically hardened "outer" circles of sympathizers, which the inner core targets for recruitment and fundraising efforts.

The jihadist threat is uniquely dangerous because it has become simultaneously more decentralized and more radical since Sept. 11. Never before have we faced a threat whose leaders enjoy so much financial and operational independence. Nor have we ever faced a threat whose "membership" can fluctuate daily and whose recruitment rate increases as the United States stages large-scale military and intelligence operations to eliminate them.

Americans also often don't quite grasp how dangerous the Iraq misadventure is. One key to the overall U.S. response to the jihadist threat is understanding how U.S. actions affecting one of these four concentric circles affects the others. Supporting a democratically illegitimate government in Iraq or conducting counterinsurgency operations there that kill significant numbers of civilians may eliminate many al Qaeda members -- but also generate sympathy for al Qaeda and jihadists throughout the Muslim world. That could draw members from the outer circles to the inner ones, giving terrorist operatives better logistical resources, fresh recruits and more money. The lines between the outer and inner circles are also the frontlines of the war of ideas, and the United States needs to pay close attention to how its actions affect the movement among them.

The hard reality is that the U.S. presence in Iraq makes it extraordinarily difficult for Washington to contribute successfully to the battle of ideas within the Islamic world. We are also clearly losing that same battle within Iraq. Popular support for the Iraqi insurgency is increasing not only inside Iraq, but also in the greater Arab world. As the United States fiercely fights insurgents in Iraq's Sunni triangle, it is missing the forest for the trees -- winning tactical victories in Iraq while rapidly losing the global war of ideas.

Noah Feldman, a law professor at New York University and a former senior constitutional adviser to the Coalitional Provisional Authority (CPA), provides a cogent analysis of U.S. efforts in Iraq in What We Owe Iraq. Feldman details the behind-the-scenes power politics of the U.S. occupation and delivers a persuasive appeal for a more grassroots approach to nation building -- that is, an approach seen by most Iraqis as legitimized by local input. He argues that nation-building can be an effective long-term strategy to fight terrorism if its purpose is to create stable democracies. Feldman surmises, correctly, that terrorism festers not only in weak states but also in strong but undemocratic ones such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Feldman's approach offers preventive medicine against insurgency and terrorism as well as a practical strategy for a longer-term global war of ideas. He recognizes that nation-building efforts stained by what is seen as illegitimate governance will be counterproductive. Every day that force is exercised "illegitimately" means many more days spent fighting to gain the ethical high ground. This is not a defeatist's calculus; it's an acknowledgment that successful nation-building requires the consent of the governed. Furthermore, it recommends a strategy that seeks to reduce anti-Americanism in the Middle East. Some may criticize this strategy, arguing that nation-building and the global war on terrorism are too important to be bounded by complaints from Muslim nations. The reality, however, is that the global jihadist movement feeds on the fruits of popular anti-Americanism, anti-Westernism and perceived oppression at the hand of illegitimate governments backed by Washington.

Unfortunately, the nation-building effort Feldman describes in Iraq has not made it a priority to win hearts and minds. He details the absence of any overall plan, coupled with the "shamefully, shockingly low" number of Americans in the CPA who spoke Arabic. He portrays a military whose operations in Fallujah alienated Sunnis who lost relatives in the fighting, had their homes invaded by American soldiers and were searched at daily checkpoints.

Feldman also describes the United States' biggest blunder in the nation-building effort: the failure to send enough troops to ensure public security after the invasion. He argues that the resultant chaos forced citizens to find safety within traditional religious groupings, which in turn provided the initial fodder for the current prolonged insurgency. Feldman's book is insightful, accessible and highly recommended for policymakers and readers interested in understanding the opportunities and hazards that will confront America as the world's foremost nation-builder.

Edwin Black's Banking on Baghdad underlines Iraq's long history of exploitation by Western powers and powerful corporations struggling for advantage and domination. His impressive analysis, which included looking at more than 50,000 original documents and hundreds of scholarly books and articles, provides a comprehensive history of Iraq that explains why the West's record in the region so complicates nation-building there today. Black writes that popular sentiment in Iraq in the post-World War II era is most aptly characterized by "resentment over foreign interference, anti-Zionism, and churning nationalism . . . fused into a rage against the West." Clearly, the West's imperial legacy in Iraq has placed the United States at a major disadvantage in the war of ideas in the Middle East. America's poor understanding of Iraq's history only makes matters worse. "Most Americans had never heard of Najaf," the great center of Shiite pilgrimage, Black points out, "and barely knew the difference between Shiites and Sunnis." In one foreboding anecdote, he describes the British effort after World War I to bring Iraq under British colonial control, with limited sovereignty, using "40 handpicked representatives," all of whom were expected to support the British agenda. After Iraqi protests went unheard, the British soon had a protracted, nationwide insurgency on their hands.

Black recounts numerous incidents of exploitation in intricate detail; his analysis of how Iraq's oil has greased the treads of war throughout modern history is particularly noteworthy. He writes that Iraqi crude fueled the tanks, warships, submarines and airplanes that helped fight for ultimate control of Iraqi territory during World War II. Well into the Cold War, Iraq remained a strategic outpost, even as its people remained "largely destitute, significantly unemployed, and detached en masse from the nation's oil wealth." Black's book is thoughtful and meticulous, though many readers may find the breadth of analysis too ambitious and, at just fewer than 500 pages, a bit tedious at points. His analysis, nevertheless, highlights the deficit of legitimacy the United States faces in Iraq and the wider Middle East.

Since so few Arabs will seriously listen to arguments about democracy from the U.S. government, the war of ideas will have to be fought by nongovernmental organizations, governments other than the U.S. administration, and friendly leaders in the Islamic world. Washington could, however, play a role in stimulating such groups, governments and individuals to assume these tasks. The Office of Transition Initiatives at the State Department has staged many successful public relations campaigns for the United States by supporting local NGOs in Muslim countries critical to the global fight against al Qaeda, such as Indonesia and Afghanistan.

Above all, U.S. nation-building efforts and operations against the global jihadist movement must be planned with an appreciation for how such efforts affect the global war of ideas. A sound and effective response in that contest could become our greatest asset; an inconsistent and ineffective response, as we are now seeing, will certainly become one of our greatest weaknesses. *

Richard A. Clarke, the White House counterterrorism coordinator under Presidents Clinton and Bush, is the author of "Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror."