Paul Pillar demolishes Jackson Diehl’s Iraq war revisionism:
The next topic in the column is al-Qaeda, with Diehl repeating the flypaper theory of counterterrorism by saying that “in Iraq, the United States faced down al-Qaeda and eventually dealt it a decisive defeat.” The fallacy with this theory is that it assumes there is a fixed number of terrorists, with the task simply being one of attracting them to where we can kill them. In fact, by its invasion and occupation of Iraq, the United States generated far more terrorists, including those of the al-Qaeda ilk, than it killed. There was no al-Qaeda in Iraq until after the U.S. invasion and the ensuing civil war created it. Moreover, the entire war was a propaganda bonanza for Osama bin Laden, lending credibility in many eyes to his accusations about the United States being out to kill Muslims, occupy their lands, and plunder their resources. The war unquestionably gave a major boost to jihadist terrorism.
Pillar sums up the flaws in Diehl’s account of the Iraq war very well. Diehl’s confusion about what happened in Iraq leads to his misguided view of what the U.S. should do in Syria. Because he can’t or won’t acknowledge that jihadists benefited from the invasion and occupation in Iraq, he doesn’t even consider that bringing the U.S. into the Syrian conflict could easily have the same effect. The rise of jihadist groups inside Iraq is another warning against intervening militarily in Syria. Indeed, doing so would be directly contrary to U.S. security interests.
If the U.S. went to war in Syria, it could have a similar effect in providing a boost to jihadist groups elsewhere. Even if these groups have no real sympathy for the targets of U.S. attacks, that isn’t going to stop them from exploiting the anti-American sentiment that yet another U.S. war in a predominantly Muslim country will create. A Syrian war could also conceivably provoke attacks elsewhere in the region by proxies aligned with Iran. At the same time, U.S. support for anti-regime forces would create opportunities for jihadist groups inside Syria to fill the vacuum created by the regime collapse that the intervention is intended to cause.
The same security threats that Diehl tries to use to justify a Syrian war, such as the acquisition of unconventional weapons by terrorists, are made more likely by kind of intervention that he proposes. Apart from the possible boost to jihadist groups, there is the danger of making ongoing sectarian violence even worse. In a security vacuum created by regime collapse, which is the outcome that interventionists say that they want, do we suppose that sectarian conflicts in Syria are likely to become less intense and less destabilizing to the surrounding region? Is it not much more likely that they will become more so? The fact that Diehl doesn’t answer or even entertain these questions tells us just how little he has learned from the Iraq war.