An argument is gaining currency that the terrorist threat to the United States has increased because of the Iraq war.
Proponents of this theory - including Democratic presidential candidates Howard Dean and Sen. Bob Graham, former British Cabinet minister Robin Cook, and 64 percent of Americans polled recently by the University of Maryland - misunderstand Osama bin Laden and his supporters. Al Qaeda declared war on the US and the West long before the Iraq invasion. It has trained for, planned, and carried out attacks for more than a decade. It has thousands of operatives, many of whom are ready to participate in more attacks - and have been for years. Some are probably in the US.
Al Qaeda did not need the excuse of a US war on Saddam Hussein to murder 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001; kill hundreds of innocent Tanzanians and Kenyans in the 1998 attacks on the US embassies there; attack the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000; or bomb US barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996. That's a list of just some of its attacks on US targets.
Yes, the US occupation of Iraq has provided Al Qaeda and other groups with another recruiting tool. But so did the US attack on Afghanistan's Taliban - which eliminated Al Qaeda's home base - and the continuing Western presence in that country. So will many other US policies, especially as the Muslim world continues to blame - wrongly - the US for Israel's illegal settlements in the occupied territories and excesses in its struggle against Palestinian suicide bombers.
Adherents of the idea that the war in Iraq has increased the threat from Al Qaeda also point to the revelation last week that British intelligence officials warned Prime Minister Tony Blair before the war that unilateral military action against Iraq could stir up more terrorism and allow terrorists to get their hands on chemical, nuclear, or biological weapons.
But they can't have it both ways. If, as some critics argue, there weren't any weapons of mass destruction to begin with, they can't turn around and argue that Saddam or others would have handed them out to terrorists. If the weapons of mass destruction existed, then the US, Britain, and their supporters were right to invade in the first place.
It's too early to judge whether the invasion of Iraq will pacify the troubled Middle East through increased democracy; whether those weapons programs existed; or whether the US has the will and resources to sustain Iraqi reconstruction.
The US has made great gains in the war on terror since 9/11. It has seriously disrupted Al Qaeda's operations and command. Even so, the threat to Americans from bin Laden's followers would be serious enough even had there been no Iraq war. The US government and the American people must plan accordingly.