President Bush tried to defend his Iraq policy Tuesday night as a means of combating terrorism. It was a standard Bush theme, a replay of arguments he has been using for three years. But there's a contradiction staring him in the face -- one so obvious that it often gets overlooked.
The war in Iraq has in fact made America's terrorism problem worse. The CIA reached that judgment in a recent report, and any fair-minded person would come to the same conclusion. By toppling the cruelly repressive regime of Saddam Hussein, the United States turned Iraq into a new breeding ground for jihadists. That doesn't mean the war was wrong, but it does make it hard to justify as an anti-terrorism stratagem.
We all hope American and Iraqi forces will contain the insurgency there, but what happens then? The answer, unfortunately, is that the terrorists go elsewhere -- as did Osama bin Laden's Afghanistan recruits. I'm told the intelligence community speaks of this problem as "bleed out" -- a graphic metaphor for how terrorist cells would seep into neighboring countries and conduct operations there and, indeed, around the world.
Here's where the fundamental contradiction in Bush's strategy becomes clear. If Iraq has shown anything, it is that there's no easy equation between democratic government and success in containing terrorism. In the short run, prying the lid off a tightly controlled society such as Iraq may actually make the terrorism problem worse. The cruel instruments of repression are gone, while the constraints of an orderly, law-abiding, democratic society are not yet present.
Bush's answer is that democracy, over time, will bring stability to the Middle East and contain the terrorism problem. I agree, but given the stakes for the United States and the world, the administration must examine the short-run consequences of political change, which is that it might lead to more terrorism, not less. That's why the proper goal in these changing societies isn't simply democracy but the rule of law.
Consider several practical examples. Last month, Jordan's King Abdullah removed his intelligence chief, Saad Kheir, as part of his effort to push for democratic reforms. The king believed that Kheir had been meddling in domestic politics and blocking his reform agenda. But Kheir was also one of the wiliest anti-terrorism operators in the world, whose agents had broken a string of al Qaeda plots against the United States and Jordan. Will a more democratic Jordan be as useful an ally in the fight against terrorism? I hope so, but it's certainly possible that in the short run a freer society won't be as successful in controlling potential terrorists.
Or take the case of Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak's undemocratic regime is in many ways an abomination. But it does have one area of undisputed success -- combating terrorism. Egypt's chief of intelligence, Omar Suleiman, is said to be a clever spymaster who excels in counterterrorism operations. But Egypt's Mukhabarat, like Jordan's, is a symbol of repression, and you could argue that in a more democratic Egypt, Suleiman will go the way of Kheir. The haunting question is whether, by weakening state control, democratic change will undermine Egypt's ability to contain the terrorist network that produced Ayman Zawahiri and other al Qaeda leaders.
Syria is another puzzle in the trade-off between democracy and disorder. Bush administration officials are so fed up with President Bashar Assad's foot-dragging in suppressing Iraqi insurgents that some officials would be happy to see a change of regime. In the short run, the most likely alternative would be a palace coup, in which a more hard-nosed member of the ruling Alawite Muslim clan seized power, such as the president's brother, Maher. But that probably wouldn't last; Syria's Sunni Muslim majority would be likely to mount a violent challenge -- organized at least in part by the Muslim Brotherhood underground. Would that make Syria a more reliable partner in countering terrorism? Probably not.
In raising these grim scenarios, I don't mean to undercut the president's basic arguments, which I endorse. A U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would make the terrorism problem there worse; what's more, an American retreat under fire would reinforce the argument bin Laden has made in his writings that if you hit America hard, it will fold. And, finally, I don't think the United States, over the long run, has any alternative to pressing for democratic reform in the Middle East.
But the daily news from Iraq is a reminder that we are in dangerous territory. America has a lot of chips on the table now, betting on outcomes that are uncertain. Bush should be wary of adding to these risks without examining them very, very carefully.