WASHINGTON — Chances are that sometime, God forbid, there will be another terrorist attack on American soil. When it happens, this much is certain: Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, members of the media, France, and other critics of the Iraq war will either say or insinuate to President Bush, "I told you so."
They will point to the next terrorist attack as "proof" that US military action in the Middle East has made us less safe.
Don't believe them. No one ever guaranteed that the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns would abolish terrorism. They only reduced the risk of it. As long as Islamic militants' ultimate demand is not met - that we all convert to Islam - the specter of terrorism will loom.
Howard Dean has already insinuated I-told-you-so. Said he, "If we are safer [following Saddam Hussein's capture], how come we lost 10 more troops and raised the safety alert?"
No, Governor Dean, the "hawks" do not think that toppling Hussein and the Taliban enabled us to declare victory in the war on terror, let our guard down, and relegate all airport metal detectors to the dustbin of history. There is still a lot of work to do. Islamic militants are being born and bred all the time - in hostile countries, in friendly countries, and in our own country. Regardless of what kind of foreign policy we adopt, they will continue to be a big threat.
Going after hostile regimes is only a single piece of the puzzle in the war on terror. Equally important are intelligence gathering, law enforcement, effective security apparatuses, border control, fortification of potential targets, and more. You could get rid of all the terrorist-sponsoring regimes in the world, yet a failure in any of these other factors is enough to let bad guys get through.
The main role of overseas military action, in addition to denying terrorists safe havens, is to try to prevent the worst kind of attack: those involving weapons of mass destruction.
It is exceedingly difficult for small bands of terrorists to develop WMD on their own. For that, they would have to rely on governments, which have the requisite funds, facilities, and scientists. It is our job to cut off the terrorists' potential supply of WMD, either through diplomacy and intimidation, as with Libya, or through force, as with Iraq.
Which is worse? Several conventional terrorist attacks in which a thousand people die, or one WMD attack in which a hundred thousand die? While regime change may help prevent the former, it is particularly aimed at trying to prevent the latter.
I know what you're thinking: "Iraq didn't have any WMD!"
Let's assume that's correct - that the intelligence during the pre-war days was wrong, and that no WMD ever turn up in Iraq.
This much is indisputable: Hussein's past behavior demonstrated that he was fully willing to develop and use WMD. His public statements were filled with justifications for the September 11 attacks, essentially saying we got what we deserved. He incentivized Palestinian suicide bombers by paying out millions of dollars to their families. He heaped praise on terrorists, those "righteous martyrs." If you want the world to believe that you would never supply WMD, acting in such a manner is not a wise thing to do.
If Hussein was telling the truth about not possessing WMD, his words and actions over the previous two decades demolished his credibility. In the wake of 9/11, we were in no mood to give a madman like that the benefit of the doubt.
A year ago the Bush administration released a paper titled "What Does Disarmament Look Like?" It gave examples of other countries granting complete access to facilities, providing thousands of documents, and allowing unfettered discussions with key personnel. If Hussein could do it all over again, he might decide to follow that paper's advice. His obfuscations, recriminations, and refusal to come clean cost him his regime. Muammar Qaddafi took that lesson to heart.
We will never know, had Hussein remained in power, whether sometime down the road he would have sponsored a WMD attack. President Bush did not want to run that risk, and took action. In so doing he opened himself up to a lot of political risk. You can't prove a negative, so he will get scant credit for would-be terrorist attacks that never happen. But when one does happen, opportunists will exploit it for all it is worth, claiming the President's actions have made us less safe. Don't believe it.