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Al Qaeda could not have hoped for a more perfect response to 9 / 11 than the American invasion of Iraq.

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(This issue's cover asks "Why War?" There is no feature story to accompany this question. Unfortunately, in the current political environment, the cover speaks for itself. The decision to wage this war was made before the reasons were fully determined. Thus, answers to this question are being very crudely crafted by the administration. Going to war demands more substance and cause -- much more. Below is my expression of concern that this war is not only misguided but exactly what the enemies of this country want.)

The question I find most disturbing is: What will al Qaeda not like about an American invasion of Iraq?

The war on terror began after September 11, 2001, when 19 al Qaeda terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon and crash-landed one in Pennsylvania on its way to Washington, D.C. Afghanistan was soon invaded in order to wipe out al Qaeda training camps, capture/kill Osama bin Laden and as much of the al Qaeda leadership as possible, and, incidentally, take out the Taliban (the U.S. would never have gone in after just the Taliban without the 9/11 catalyst). One out of three, in these circumstances, is tragic, but it didn't stop us from declaring a complete victory.

Arguably, the next stage of the war on terrorism was the massive and massively expensive homeland security actions. Increased, excessive, and basically impotent scrutiny at the airports is the most visible activity. The most disturbing is the creation of a vast, new, bureaucratic homeland security agency that seems intent on accomplishing a significant part of the terrorist agenda by beginning to limit the rights and restrict the freedom of American citizens. Wait until there is another significant terrorist incident to see how this plays out.

Next up: invading Iraq. If this is part of the war on terror, we have to face the question that opens this column. How does this not explicitly serve the agenda of al Qaeda, the perpetrators of 9/11?

Al Qaeda is made up of religious fanatics who would like to see secular Muslim governments overthrown, replaced by strict fundamentalist theocracies. Saddam Hussein's regime is not only secular but has slaughtered Shiite Muslims. Bin Laden has condemned him. If he goes, good riddance.

Our government is claiming that Hussein's dictatorship will be replaced by a democratically elected Iraqi government. Easier said than done. Afghanistan currently has a very shaky leadership; we will have to wait a couple more years to see how that plays out. Certainly, the hand of Iraqi fundamentalists will be strengthened. No matter what we believe, no matter how unhappy the Iraqis may be with Hussein, don't expect gratitude for treating them like a dependent colony.

An Iraq invasion will place other Middle East governments in precarious political positions, especially if they are seen as favoring or supporting the United States. Currently, most of those governments are oligarchies that have neglected to build infrastructure or to help build a strong middle class. The distance between the ruling elite and the masses is staggering, with very few people in between economically. This is a situation ripe for revolution. Already, in almost every country, fundamentalist organizations are plotting to topple their governments. An American invasion will only help the mobilization against secular leadership corrupted by the evil West. Pakistan is particularly vulnerable, especially after Afghanistan, and it has nuclear weapons.

Pro-war leaders, politicians, and talk-show hosts postulate that this awesome display of American will and military muscle will 1) scare governments away from allowing terrorist organizations to function within their borders and 2) cow the terrorists themselves into laying down arms in acknowledgement of America's unbeatable superior strength. Finally, 3) Hussein is the leader of every renegade outlaw Muslim, and taking him out will warn them off.

In order:

1) Some countries that are now friendly to terrorist organizations probably will move against them. Unfortunately, terrorist organizations are already flourishing in countries where the government has actively tried to eliminate them (Pakistan and Egypt). Other governments will feel too threatened to further alienate their fundamentalist activists (witness Saudi Arabia, even post 9/11). Others, fearful of U.S. aggression, will probably actively encourage terrorist camps.

2) Vietnam provided a rather vivid prototype of how American strength intimidates committed Third World revolutionaries.

3) Hussein is a secular leader; the real danger is from religious fundamentalists. Taking him out will encourage their fanaticism, not deter it.

In the next few days, Secretary of State Colin Powell is going to sketch out the connection between Iraq and al Qaeda. Outside of heavily disputed reports of a meeting in France between an Iraqi agent and a 9/11 plotter, there is absolutely no evidence that Iraq was responsible for that brutal assault. Listening to right-wing spokesmen would have you convinced that if Hussein didn't pilot the planes himself, he used mind control to make it happen. He wasn't involved.

Politics and terror make for strange bedfellows. Not to question an Iraq-al Qaeda alliance as they face the same enemy, but it is, at best, a temporary marriage of convenience. Remember, when it was conducive to our international interests, the U.S. collaborated with Hussein's administration. If he is removed, al Qaeda may lose training bases. They will find other places. They may lose funding. The U.S. invasion will be like a Middle East Bond Drive Rally; money will pour into terrorist organizations. They may lose men. Their respect for human life already clearly demonstrated, this invasion would be an incredible recruiting tool, bringing young Muslims to their ranks by the thousands for generations to come. It may deny them access to nuclear weapons. Every report I've heard has al Qaeda purchasing weapons from ex-Soviet sources. It may, temporarily, restrict their access to chemical weapons. Well, you got me there.

Al Qaeda claims that the United States is a godless aggressor with no respect for the Middle East's sovereignty and a vicious prejudice against the Muslim people. Their goal is to organize a vast, fundamentalist Muslim movement, not just in the Middle East but throughout the world, to overthrow the secular oligarchies that rule them, and wage a religious war against the West. The goal is for an imagined, idealized, pure Muslim past to triumph over the corrupt, Westernized, modern present.

In what way is an American invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Hussein anything but the perfect recruiting tool for those goals?

Armadas of airplanes, thunderstorms of missiles, vast armored forces, and armies of tens of thousands of men are impressive. Against a person with a gun in a shopping mall, a student with a bomb on a bus, a fanatic with a knife in a kindergarten, they are meaningless. Terrorism has no capital, exists in no geographically defined region, has no distinct and definable leadership. This invasion of Iraq is an act of let's pretend. It is tossing gasoline on a fire. Forget the Iraqi people; forget alienating our allies (not simply by ignoring them but by treating them with no respect); forget the economic cost; focus on one question.

Is there anything about an American invasion of Iraq that does not serve al Qaeda's goals? Is it not exactly the most perfect response to 9/11 for which they might have hoped?

It's still the economy, stupid! Bush's tax cuts, economic stimulus package, and war plans are scary in how little they will help the economy and how much they will devastate it and this country far into the future. Look at the market. The large, institutional, corporate, and private long-term investors have no faith in a recovering U.S. economy. It's not only the war that's driving down the market. Although these investors will benefit the most from Bush's ridiculous tax cuts, they know that they won't revitalize the economy.

OK, I've run out of space. At some point I will go on about this more. I'd love to discuss the new, aggressive Republican assault on discrimination and demand for unilateral equality, which, quite remarkably, is focused solely on denouncing any minority consideration while blithely ignoring the bulk of American history (including most of this century), but not now. I will note that I was out of town last week, and thanks for the many, many compliments on "Page Two"; Michael King wrote it. The Statesman's hysterical, agenda-oriented handling of the Barton Springs story is a topic we'll get around to later, as well, though Michael did cover it rather completely. end story

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al Qaeda, invasion of Iraq, war in Iraq, Iraq, September 11, 9 / 11, 9-11, World Trade Center, WTC, Pentagon, Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden, Taliban, Dept. of Homeland Security, homeland security, Muslim, Saddam Hussein, fundamentalist Muslim, Shiite Muslim, Middle East

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