Are we safer now?

The war on Saddam has made the U.S. less secure, say foreign-policy experts.

Published August 1, 2003 12:06AM (EDT)

With Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and his ties to the terrorists of al-Qaida proving elusive, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz made the rounds of Sunday morning talk shows this week to push a subtle shift in the Bush administration's justification for war in Iraq. Boiled to its essence, the message was simple and had a strong emotional hook: America's security was at stake. U.S. troops, like their fathers and grandfathers before them, are fighting overseas to protect the home front.

"The battle to win the peace in Iraq now is the central battle in the war on terrorism," Wolfowitz argued on Fox News. "And what these [U.S.] troops are doing is something that's going to make our country safer." He echoed the point during a contentious, three-hour hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill: "Getting rid of the Hussein regime for good is not only in the interest of the Iraqi people, it enhances the security of Americans."

For weeks, the administration has struggled to quiet a public and a press that have grown restive over war justifications that have evaporated like water in the desert sun. But if early signals are any indication, the latest line of defense from the White House is already in trouble. Many in the national security establishment see strong evidence that, far from improving U.S. security, the war in Iraq has caused it significant damage.

Some of the costs are obvious, and paid for in American lives. Administration war planners had predicted U.S. forces would be greeted as liberators by the Iraqi people. But 50 U.S. soldiers have been killed in the guerrilla war since May 1, when President Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq. In all, 164 U.S. soldiers have died in combat in Iraq, 17 more than were killed in the 1991 Gulf War.

In a series of interviews with Salon, some of the nation's top domestic- and foreign-policy experts charged this week that the war has destabilized the Middle East even as it has distracted the U.S. from the real terrorist threat to domestic security. It has turned public opinion in the Muslim world even more sharply against the U.S. It has fired the anger of new recruits for al-Qaida and other Islamist terror groups, and may help those terrorists get access to lethal weapons of mass destruction. It has provoked Iran and North Korea into a race for nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the experts say, the cost of the war on Iraq has siphoned tens of billions of dollars away from measures needed for domestic security.

The administration "grossly exaggerated" the connection between Iraq and the global war on terrorism, Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., scolded Wolfowitz Tuesday. "In my view, the overemphasis on Iraq has caused a serious erosion of our ability to go after the actual [terrorist] operatives."

Others put it in more human terms. "I saw the war with Iraq very differently than a lot of people, namely because of what happened to my husband," says Kristen Breitweiser of Sept. 11 Advocates, whose husband, Ronald, died in the World Trade Center attack. "I thought it was going to incite more terrorists, which apparently it has overseas. And to date we still haven't caught bin Laden."

For now, Bush appears to be protected by continued backing from the American public. In the aftermath of the war, most Americans say they do feel safer. When a Newsweek poll asked respondents to assess the statement "Our national security is stronger because a potential threat has been removed and enemies warned that the United States will use military force to protect its interests," 62 percent agreed. Only 28 percent disagreed.

Perhaps that suggests the Iraq war was a huge collective catharsis, helping the nation to throw off the fears of 9/11. Or perhaps, critics say, the public has been deliberately misled by the Bush administration.

"Bush did a brilliant job of bamboozling American people that Iraq was directly involved with events of 9/11," says John Mearsheimer, an acclaimed foreign policy realist at the University of Chicago who served 10 years in the military during the '60s and '70s. "There's no good evidence Saddam and Osama bin Laden were linked in any meaningful way. But there's no question most Americans don't see it that way."

"Part of American psyche after 9/11 was to strike back against people who resembled the hijackers, who speak the same language, who share a common religious faith," agreed Charles Peña, director of defense policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. "It was an easy sell for the White House to equate Iraq and 9/11."

Taken together, the various war justifications employed by the White House all go to the same point: That war would make America safer. In his nationally televised speech last October, Bush delivered the definitive rationale: "Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."

The administration's thinking does strike a chord with some analysts. "Unequivocally yes, our national security is safer since the war with Iraq," says retired Army intelligence officer Ralph Peters. "We've taken the war to the enemy. Now they're preoccupied with their own survival, not attacking the United States. They understand America won't just lie down and take it."

But the war was justified by Bush explicitly as an effort to rid the region of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Many now assume that the weapons didn't exist. Wolfowitz last week told reporters: "I'm not concerned about weapons of mass destruction." And, some skeptics wonder, what if the weapons did exist?

Prior to the war, the White House argued that Saddam might hand off deadly weapons to aligned terrorist groups who might strike the United States. White House officials themselves, pressed to explain the weapons' absence, have periodically suggested that some weapons may have been moved into Syria. And it may be unlikely that Saddam would give up an ace in the hole to a group he couldn't control.

What if Saddam lost control of the weapons? "Scientists and military technicians who worked for Saddam Hussein have scattered inside Iraq and are missing, roaming free, possibly for hire," warns Joseph Cirincione, author of "Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction."

Says Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations: "If there are [Iraqi] weapons of mass destruction somewhere on the black market, and it's entirely possible, then we're in danger."

The failure to find WMD or any substantive link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida has forced the administration to fall back on a more complex defense against its critics: that toppling Saddam would help drain the Middle East swamp that has been a breeding ground for fierce anti-U.S. sentiment in the region.

Iraq, in that analysis, was the second phase of swamp-draining; toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan was the first. And Bush and his allies can claim some tentative success. The effort to overthrow both repressive governments may win friends and allies for the U.S. for generations to come, especially if each country can build toward greater security and freedom.

Peters, author of "Beyond Terror: Strategy in the Changing World," sees progress in the region just in the past few months. "To look at it objectively right now, indicators are overwhelmingly positive," he says. For example, he says, both Syria and Iran have throttled back their state-sponsored terrorism.

Many Iraq war hawks felt that the war could also hasten a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. That would deprive militants in the region of one of their main complaints, they reasoned, and thereby reduce their hostility to the U.S. Thus far, experts are split on whether that aim has been achieved. On one hand, peace talks under the rubric of the Bush-backed "road map" continue; suicide bombings have all but stopped, and this week Israel released hundreds of jailed Palestinian militants in a sign of good faith. Yet at the same time, the Israeli government, over the objections of the Bush administration as well as the Palestinian Authority, continues building a massive security wall to run through portions of the Palestinian West Bank.

But for every gain achieved in the few months since Saddam's government fell, there have been significant costs and reverses, analysts say.

"The United States is not safer, because we went after the wrong target," argues Peña at the Cato Institute. "Since 9/11, it ought to be pretty clear that we're at war with the al-Qaida terrorist network, not rogue states who share common animosity towards the United States ... Iraq sapped tremendous attention and resources and has given al-Qaida time to recuperate and rejuvenate."

"We're less safe because we have made enemies out of people who were not previously our enemy, and we stirred up the anti-American sentiment," former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson told Salon.

In 1991, Wilson served President George H.W. Bush as the No. 2 U.S. diplomat in Baghdad on the eve of the first Gulf War. Last year, the CIA sent Wilson on a fact-finding trip to Niger to determine if there was any truth to the allegation that Iraq was trying to buy uranium oxide -- which can be converted into fuel for nuclear weapons -- from the African country. Wilson found no such evidence and earlier this month wrote a New York Times Op-Ed piece critical of the administration, saying he had told the CIA long before the president's January 2003 State of the Union speech that the reports about Saddam's business in Niger were suspect.

"We'd probably make a lot more progress in the war on terrorism if we'd focused on Afghanistan and not gotten distracted in Iraq," Wilson said. "Then there wouldn't be the rebirth of the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as pockets of al-Qaida." Last week, Reuters reported that fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Omar had ordered the new deputy military commander for southern Afghanistan to intensify guerrilla attacks on U.S. forces.

Wilson, like some other foreign policy experts, is openly skeptical of the claim that the fight against Saddam would have any positive impact in reducing terrorism against the United States. Saddam's terrorist ties were with Palestinian-focused groups, such as Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, which have been waging a guerrilla war with Israel for years. And unlike al-Qaida, the groups have not targeted or issued threats against the United States.

"Why are we fighting the battle of terrorism in Iraq?" Wilson asked. "Does Iraq have ties to groups with a global reach, a distinction the president himself made for the war on terrorism after 9/11? Or is it because we've so tied our foreign policy to Israel? If the United States considers any terrorist attack against Israel to be an attack on the U.S., then it ought to come out and say so."

Thomas Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, argues that Middle Eastern terrorist groups cannot be easily divided into distinct groups, and need to be fought across the board, regardless of whether their primary targets are America or Israel. "Terrorism is global, security is global. We have to go to the terrorists, or they will come to us."

In fact, evidence suggests that the war on Iraq has given other sorts of encouragement and aid to terrorists.

"The level of anger and frustration towards the United States is the highest we've ever seen, and expressed unanimously through all sectors, including pro-western liberals," says Marc Lynch, a professor of political science at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and an expert on Arab public opinion. That anger was confirmed in a postwar survey conducted for the Pew Global Attitudes Project, which showed America's dismal standing in the Arab world.

Specifically, the survey found, "solid majorities" in the Palestinian Authority, Indonesia and Jordan -- and nearly half of those in Morocco and Pakistan -- say they have at least some confidence in Osama bin Laden to "do the right thing regarding world affairs." Fully 71 percent of Palestinians say they have confidence in bin Laden in this regard.

According to news reports, some al-Qaida members, effectively kept out of Iraq during Saddam's rule, have been entering the country to attack U.S. soldiers. Pointing to that ominous development, as well as the poll numbers indicating burgeoning respect for bin Laden among the masses in the Middle East, Cirincione says it seems "pretty obvious the warnings from counterintelligence analysts before the war are coming to pass, that the war has been a recruiting bonanza for al-Qaida."

At the same time, the fixation on Iraq has pulled intelligence resources away from the anti-terrorism campaign. "It's impossible to know what we're missing now," because of the emphasis on Iraq, says Metzl at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Human resources," and not just money, "need to be the focus of what we're doing," he says.

Beyond Iraq's borders, the war has had a similar effect of backfiring. The preemptive strike on Baghdad seems to have sent a dubious message to states like North Korea and Iran: Go get nuclear weapons, fast. Earlier this month, North Korea announced it had finished converting 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods into plutonium, the clearest sign yet the communist government might be determined to begin producing nuclear weapons. At the same time, news that U.N. inspectors recently found enriched uranium in Iran, another member of Bush's "axis of evil," set off alarms among nuclear disarmament experts.

"Look at what's happened in past six months," said Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago. "Iran and North Korean are racing ahead to develop and deploy a nuclear arsenal. We haven't solved nuclear proliferation problem -- we've made it worse."

But in light of the Iraq invasion, said Dan Reiter, professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta, Iraq and North Korea believe they are doing "a rational thing" to preserve themselves.

Now the U.S. must invest heavily in diplomacy to block their efforts to build nuclear weapons, and some hawkish policy experts suggest that if they don't back down, further military action might be required.

Perhaps most worrisome to Americans is how the war, the Bush administration's preoccupation with it and the financial cost of it have undermined domestic security. For the past 12 months, "we've done virtually nothing in a non-military realm to substantially improve our security," says terrorism expert Stephen Flynn, author of the upcoming book "America the Vulnerable." "The war has been a substantial drain of the resources available to deal with homeland security."

The invasion itself cost approximately $100 billion. The cost of rebuilding Iraq could run approximately $45 billion over the next year alone. By comparison, the Department of Homeland Security, which employs 180,000 people, has a budget of $24 billion for the next fiscal year.

A chilling example emerged Wednesday: Just a day after the federal government warned of more al-Qaida suicide hijackings, the Transportation Security Administration proposed to cut $104 million from its air marshal program, the Associated Press reported. It was not known how many air marhsals would be taken off the job, but clearly, air security would be compromised.

"When we are faced with more priorities than we have funding to support, we have to go through a process of trying to address the most urgent needs," said agency spokesman Robert Johnson.

The federal budget shortfall has a dangerous trickle-down effect. The cost of the war and the Bush tax cuts have dried up federal aid available to states, cities and towns. They're already suffering from budget deficits, and now there are huge new expenses for anti-terror programs. But, says Flynn, "the administration has said to states and localities, 'You're on your own, protect your citizens and protect the infrastructure,'" he says. "The administration decided after 9/11 it was not going to provide any resources. Now with Iraq, and the billion dollar-a-week cost attached to it, the option of aiding states and localities has been cut off. It's impossible."

According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, America's cities have spent approximately $2.6 billion on homeland security needs since Sept. 11, and another $70 million per week while America was at a heightened state of alert during the war in Iraq. At the same time, the National Governors Association estimated states need to spend from $5 billion to $7 billion to meet their homeland-security needs. Many simply cannot afford it.

A senior national security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, Flynn has focused much of his work on the lax security standards that govern overseas shipping containers, 6 million of which arrived in 361 U.S. sea and river ports last year. He says the security challenges alone facing the country in the wake of Sept. 11 -- protecting chemical plants and other crucial infrastructure, increasing airline safety, monitoring maritime traffic more closely and tightening up the borders -- "would be all-consuming in their own right." But factor in the costly invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq, and "nobody at the top of the government is focused on these security issues, and they're without resources for the foreseeable future."

Already, police and firefighters have joined other local officials in begging for more support from Washington. And there are signs that the public, too, is beginning to see through the Bush strategy. According to a recent Program on International Policy Attitudes poll, less than half of Americans -- 45 percent -- now think the U.S. has found clear evidence that Saddam Hussein was working closely with al-Qaida.

For now, the White House is sticking to its script linking the war to terrorism and national security. "A free Iraq," Bush told reporters at his Thursday news conference, "will make America much more secure."

This story has been corrected since it was first published.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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