Bush's perversion of the "war on terror."

Politics and policy.
Sept. 8 2003 4:54 PM

Mission Creep

Bush's perversion of the "war on terror."

A $87 billion misrepresentation
A $87 billion misrepresentation

For more than a year, President Bush has framed Iraq as part of the "war on terror." And for more than a year, he has produced no evidence for that claim. No evidence of a link between Iraq and 9/11. No evidence of an affinity between Saddam Hussein's secular tyranny and the fundamentalists of al-Qaida. No evidence of a terrorist presence in Iraq greater than in other Arab or Muslim countries. No evidence that Iraq offered weapons of mass destruction to terrorists.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

In his address to the nation Sunday night, Bush offered two new arguments for declaring Iraq "the central front" in the war on terror. If you buy those arguments, he's right. But before you buy them, stop and think about how far afield they would take us from the war we embarked on two years ago.

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Bush wants us to support his postwar Iraq policy as reflexively as we supported the war on al-Qaida in Afghanistan. That's why he delivered this speech just before the anniversary of 9/11. "Nearly two years ago, following deadly attacks on our country, we began a systematic campaign against terrorism," he recalled in his opening remarks. "America and a broad coalition acted first in Afghanistan … and we acted in Iraq."

How was our action in Iraq part of the campaign against terrorism? The old argument, which Bush repeated Sunday, was that Saddam "sponsored terrorism." But again, Bush offered no evidence that Saddam had done so in a way different from Iran, Syria, or even Saudi Arabia. Instead, Bush argued that regardless of whether terrorists in Iraq were at war with us two years ago, they are today. As Bush put it,

Five months after we liberated Iraq, a collection of killers is desperately trying to undermine Iraq's progress and throw the country into chaos. … Some of the attackers are foreign terrorists, who have come to Iraq to pursue their war on America and other free nations. … The terrorists have a strategic goal. They want us to leave Iraq before our work is done. They want to shake the will of the civilized world. In the past, the terrorists have cited the examples of Beirut and Somalia, claiming that if you inflict harm on Americans, we will run from a challenge. In this, they are mistaken. ... We will do what is necessary, we will spend what is necessary, to achieve this essential victory in the war on terror.

Second, Bush argued that ousting Arab tyrants is inherently necessary to the war on terror:

The Middle East will either become a place of progress and peace, or it will be an exporter of violence and terror that takes more lives in America and in other free nations. The triumph of democracy and tolerance in Iraq, in Afghanistan and beyond would be a grave setback for international terrorism. The terrorists thrive on the support of tyrants and the resentments of oppressed peoples. When tyrants fall and resentment gives way to hope, men and women in every culture reject the ideologies of terror and turn to the pursuits of peace.

Think for a minute about what these two arguments entail. The first justifies any war in which, as a result of our actions, terrorists attack our troops. Imagine an invasion of Cuba, whose dictator has long rankled Bush and would be easier to topple than Saddam was. No doubt al-Qaida and other terrorist groups would send agents to try to kill the occupying troops. Bush could then defend the occupation as part of the "war on terror."

The second argument is equally fraught with implications. Yes, tyranny breeds terrorism. But if the "war on terror" requires us to overthrow tyrants just because they're tyrants, we'll be at war for the rest of your life.

If you opposed the Iraq war because you saw no connection to 9/11 or because you didn't trust Bush, his creepy redefinition of the "war on terror" vindicates your suspicions. But if, like me, you supported the Iraq war for other reasons, Bush's linguistic revisionism still matters. I supported the Iraq war because Saddam repeatedly violated the disarmament and inspection agreements that constituted his probation after the Persian Gulf War, and because the U.N. Security Council showed no willingness, even at the brink of a U.S. invasion, to embrace a serious timetable for enforcing those agreements. We did what had to be done. But it didn't have to be done to protect the United States from an imminent threat. It had to be done to preserve the credibility of international law enforcement, such as it is.