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Fighting the Caliphate

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Jonathan Schell
Jonathan Schell is the Lannan Fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches a course on the nuclear dilemma at...

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After 9/11, the US invented a new kind of borderless, pre-emptive warfare, plunging the world into an endless cycle of violence.

The United States is no Soviet Union—and yet it has set up machinery that satisfies certain tendencies that are in the genetic code of totalitarianism.

Clearly, a tactical if not a strategic shift in the election plan was needed. The political riddle that now needed an answer was how to exploit the war on terror when its alleged main front, the war in Iraq, was rejected by the public as a mistake.

A first answer to the riddle was found: Define the general, global war on terror so sweepingly that the specific war in Iraq dwindled to just one front on the epic battlefield. Around Labor Day the Administration rolled out its new political line.

The centerpiece of the campaign was a series of speeches by Bush. Billed as stock-taking on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, they were in fact campaign speeches. The most eye-popping one was given to the Military Officers Association September 5, the day after Labor Day, the traditional beginning of election campaigns. Too strange to be captured in soundbites (although many of these, too, were supplied and recycled in the media), much of the substance of the speech curiously eluded coverage. For one thing, Bush couldn't stop citing Osama bin Laden, devoting four paragraphs to direct quotations from him and another dozen to paraphrases and citations of his words. The result for listeners was a queer impression that one had stumbled into an Al Qaeda videotape statement that somehow was being read out by the President. One almost expected to see Ayman Al Zawahiri sitting cross-legged beside him. (And, in fact, a recently released GOP ad actually does show bin Laden making his threats.)

In effect, Bush took Osama's evaluation of his own powers at face value. In his words, "America and our coalition partners have made our choice. We're taking the words of the enemy seriously." Bin Laden was aiming, Bush said in his own voice, at a "radical empire," a "totalitarian nightmare." Then, quoting bin Laden, he intoned, "'The whole world is an open field for us.'" If the United States didn't stop them, the President said, again speaking in his own, concurring voice, Sunni extremists would "remake the entire Muslim world in their radical image." They would do it in four stages. First, they would "expel the Americans from Iraq"; second, "establish an Islamic authority...and support it until it achieves the level of caliphate"; third, "extend the jihad wave to the secular countries neighboring Iraq"; and, fourth, initiate "the clash with Israel." And that was not all: "This caliphate would be a totalitarian Islamic empire encompassing all current and former Muslim lands, stretching from Europe to North Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia."

But the Shiites were busy, too, in the President's portrait. The leader of Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, made a cameo appearance with an anti-American speech, also amply quoted by Bush. Iran and its nuclear program were brought into the ranks of America's Shiite enemies by this route.

But could Al Qaeda and/or Hezbollah actually accomplish all--or even any--of this? There are a multitude of evils that might befall Iraq if American troops withdraw (and an equal or greater number if they stay), but no reputable Middle East scholar thinks the conquest of the country by Al Qaeda is one of them. Experts assess the current fighting strength of Al Qaeda at several thousand at most. The serious contenders for power in non-Kurdish Iraq are the Shiite majority and the Sunni minority. As for an Al Qaeda-led totalitarian caliphate stretching from Baghdad to Jakarta, the idea was so outlandish that for days after the speech it went almost undiscussed, pro or con. What is more, the Shiites and the Sunnis, blurred into one menace by the President, are historic rivals and, in Iraq right now, mortal enemies (with the United States weirdly fighting on the Shiite side). Would a globe-spanning Sunni "caliphate" have the bomb? Or would it be the rival, Shiite, Iranian empire? Or maybe both?

Bush supplied no factual material for answering these questions. Instead, he summoned the ghosts of Hitler and Lenin back onto the historical stage. Hadn't the world "ignored Hitler's words" and wound up with "millions in the gas chambers" and a "world aflame"? And hadn't the world overlooked the pronouncements of Lenin in Zurich, and let him "establish an empire" that "killed tens of millions and brought the world to the brink of thermonuclear war"? So it would be with Osama, who now implicitly was menacing the world not only with a multinational totalitarian empire, genocide and world war but also with a thermonuclear holocaust.

With these stakes on the table, who would bother to take notice of the deaths of a few thousand American soldiers or even some few hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed in Iraq? Shortly, indeed, in a phrase that summed up the new strategy, Bush described that war as "just a comma" in history's grand sweep.

Such was the fare that the Bush Administration was offering as the election season began in September. The strategy had a historical pedigree that certainly was much on the minds of both parties. In 1972 Senator George McGovern had run against Richard Nixon on an anti-Vietnam War platform. At that time, too, a constitutional crisis was brewing--the one that turned into Watergate and Nixon's resignation of the presidency. The public agreed with McGovern about the war, yet returned Nixon to office in a landslide. It seemed that even as voters understood that the war at hand was a disaster, they didn't want to apply any lessons from the war to foreign policy as a whole. And so McGovern was successfully labeled "weak" and "soft"--a stain that the Democratic Party has tried to rub off for the past thirty-four years and still has not adequately dealt with. Indeed, calling Democrats weak and soft on this, that or the other thing became the stock in trade of Republicans for this entire period, including, of course, the 2002 and 2004 elections, and arguably was the chief reason for their successes.

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