August 27, 2003 | Scripps Howard News Service

The Big Picture

The war liberated millions. But the post-war period proved difficult. Members of the former regime went underground and continued to fight, using terrorist tactics – even against their fellow countrymen. Those who had been freed lacked essential services, including food, clean water, jobs and housing. Opposition to the “occupation” persisted. The reconstruction progressed slowly. True democracy took years to establish.

Nevertheless, most Americans today agree that President Lincoln was right to wage the Civil War.

Eventually, a similar view will likely prevail regarding the U.S.-led war to liberate Iraq. The vast majority of Americans will understand that the war was both just and necessary – and that regime change was bound to be followed by a prolonged low-intensity conflict, waged in large part by people whom U.S. troops took pains to spare during the major combat phase of the war.

Americans will see that just as the Ku Klux Klan's terrorism was one response to the Union victory, so it was to be expected that Ba'athist remnants — and their Jihadist allies from abroad — would employ terrorism against U.S. soldiers, international civil servants and free Iraqis working to build a decent society. Americans also will recognize that there was no quick and easy way to transform a damaged and oppressed society into a free, democratic and prosperous nation.

For now, however, a debate still rages on several levels.

  • Some people continue to argue that Saddam Hussein should not have been removed, that the threat he represented was not sufficiently “imminent” as to require military intervention. These are, presumably, the same people who throughout the 1990s also were confident that Osama bin Laden's takeover of Afghanistan represented no imminent threat to the U.S.


  • Others maintain that to pacify and democratize Iraq requires ceding authority to the United Nations and the Europeans. That ignores the obvious fact that the UN has no terrorist-fighting capability – it doesn't even have a clear definition of terrorism. What's more, a UN democratization effort is unrealistic so long as the UN Security Council includes such states as China and Syria. Nor can the UN be taken seriously on human rights as long as its Human Rights Commission is headed by Libya. As for the European aptitude for nation-building, which former European colony in Africa has been built into a successful democracy?


  • Perhaps most troubling are those who remain unable — or unwilling — to see the big picture, who fail to connect the ideological, strategic and tactical dots linking suicide-bombings in such apparently disparate places as Bombay, Baghdad, Jakarta, and Jerusalem.


  • They claim to see no pattern — even as al Qaeda joins Saddam Hussein in calling for “jihad” against Americans in Iraq, Hamas wages “jihad” against Jews in Israel, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad wage “jihad” against Hindus and moderate Muslims in India, the Abu Sayyaf group wages “jihad” against Christians in the Philippines, and Jemaah Islamiah wages “jihad” against Christians and Buddhists in Indonesia.

Author Elliot Cohen and former CIA Director Jim Woolsey have given the big picture a name: They call it World War IV (the Cold War having been World War III). This conflict did not start on 9/11. Battles were fought — and lost – twenty years ago in Beirut (when the US Marine barracks and embassy were suicide-bombed by Hezbollah), ten years ago at New York's World Trade Center (a suicide-bombing masterminded by Ramzi Yousef, who traveled on an Iraqi passport and may or may not have been acting on Saddam's instructions), in Mogadishu that same year, as well as at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, at the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and when the USS Cole was attacked in the Red Sea in 2000.

(And, of course, the roots of this war go back even further, to such early 20th century figures as Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian member of the Muslim Brotherhood who helped create the theoretical framework for an ideology of anti-democratic jihadism and Islamic supremacism.)

Astonishingly, none of this prompted Americans to action. Over the past 20 years, we should have been developing the most sophisticated intelligence-gathering capability the world has ever seen. We should have been infiltrating terrorist organizations and jihadist groups. We should have been training more elite military and clandestine counter-terrorism forces. Instead, we cashed in the “peace dividend” and went to the beach where we fretted over shark attacks.

Now, we have a lot of catching up to do. Now we have to learn to fight a different kind of enemy waging a different kind of war. But the first step is simply to recognize the nature, gravity and scope of the threat we face. The second step is to acknowledge that winning this war will be neither cheap nor easy. The third step is to have faith that, years from now, most Americans will agree that we were right to wage it.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a research institute focusing on terrorism.