It has been fashionable — indeed, de rigueur in political and media circles — to view contemptuously President Bush’s assertion that we are fighting the terrorists in Iraq so we wouldn’t have to fight them here. Even conservative commentators have tended to tiptoe around the proposition. We are all far too sophisticated to believe such simplicities. Nor will any self-respecting public chatterer even raise the little matter of America not being hit by terrorism on our soil for the almost seven years since Sept. 11.
And yet the undeniable facts certainly would justify a debate — if not yet a consensus of agreement — on President Bush’s assertions. Regarding killing Islamist terrorists in Iraq rather than New York City, consider the numbers: According to USA Today in September 2007, more than 19,000 insurgents had been killed by coalition forces since 2003. The number obviously has gone up in the nine months since then (these were midsurge numbers), but I don’t have reliable updated numbers.
Of course, most of those 19,000 killed insurgents were not foreign terrorists, but local Iraqis moved to action by our occupation. However, according to studies by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and by the Defense Intelligence Agency, foreign-born jihadists in Iraq are believed to number between 4 and10 percent of the total insurgent strength. So it is reasonable to assume that we have killed — as of nine months ago — between 800 and 1,900 non-Iraqi terrorists who otherwise would have been plying their trade elsewhere. It only took a couple of dozen to commit the atrocities of Sept. 11.
Moreover, we know specifically that Al-Qaida in Iraq has been decimated recently. According to the British newspaper The Times in February: "Al-Qaeda in Iraq faces an ‘extraordinary crisis’. … The terrorist group’s security structure suffered ‘total collapse’."
And last month, Strategy Page reported: "Al Qaeda web sites are making a lot of noise about ‘why we (al-Qaida) lost in Iraq’. Western intelligence agencies are fascinated by the statistics being posted in several Arab language sites. Not the kind of stuff you read about in the Western media. According to al Qaeda, their collapse in Iraq was steep and catastrophic. … If you can read Arabic, you can easily find these pro-terrorism sites, and see for yourself how al Qaeda is trying to explain its own destruction (in Iraq) to its remaining supporters."
Now, it is doubtlessly true that our invasion of Iraq (and Afghanistan) helped al-Qaida’s recruitment. I have been told that by U.S. government experts I trust. But that is an old fact. What Osama bin Laden famously said about recruitment is also true: People follow the strong horse. And the new fact is that as we are winning in Iraq, as we are killing al-Qaida fighters and other Islamist terrorists there by the truckload (along with other insurgent opponents of the Iraqi government we support with our blood and wealth), we are proving to be the strong horse after all and can expect to see a reduced attraction for young men to join the Islamist terrorist ranks.
Fighting and winning always impress. Even merely fighting and persisting impress. Shortly after the fall of Soviet Communism, I had dinner with a then-recently former senior Red army general. He told me that the Soviets were astounded and impressed by the fact that we were prepared to fight and lose 50,000 men in Vietnam, when the Soviets never thought we even had a strategic interest there. They thus calculated that they’d better be careful with the United States. What might we do, they thought, if our interests really were threatened?
The full effects of the vigorous martial response of President Bush to the attacks of Sept. 11 will not be known for decades. But if history is any indicator, military courage, persistence and a capacity to kill the enemy in large numbers usually work to the benefit of such nations.
On Sept. 10, 2001, many Islamists thought America and the West were decadent, cowardly and ripe for the pickings. (Hitler thought the same thing about us.) On the basis of President Bush’s political courage — and supremely on the physical courage, moral strength and heartbreaking sacrifice of all our fighting uniformed men and women (and un-uniformed intelligence operatives) — America’s willingness and capacity to fight to protect ourselves cannot be doubted around the world. This may prove to be the most important global political fact of the first decade of the 21st century — with implications even beyond our struggle with radical Islam.
It is time to reconsider whether President Bush or Barack Obama was right on whether to fight. Obama has had a good political run on the early and inconclusive evidence. As victory starts to emerge in Iraq, more persuasive data begin to fall on President Bush’s side of the argument. This is a debate worth having before November.