The latest national intelligence estimate is hardly a stunner: Our continuing military intervention in Iraq has become a cause celebre for al-Qaida's global network, swelling its ranks. Democrats naturally seize this as clear proof of President Bush's strategic mistake in toppling Saddam Hussein.
Is Iraq an unnecessary diversion in the Long War?
My answer is no.
The global jihadist movement chooses its fronts in this asymmetrical struggle (e.g., New York, Washington, Bali, Madrid, London, Beslan, Mumbai), as does America (Afghanistan, Iraq). These targets don't match up very well, but that's because each side is fighting a very different war.
The jihadists seek to hijack predominately Muslim countries out of globalization, disconnecting them completely from "Westoxification." President Bush, in response, laid a "big bang" on the Middle East by toppling its worst dictator in the hope that the subsequent tumult would trigger significant change, which it has - both good and bad.
In short, we endeavor to connect Islam to the globalizing world, while al-Qaida promises permanent civilizational apartheid.
Don't pretend you don't know which outcome brings lasting peace.
For that reason alone, simply toppling the much-hated Taliban wasn't enough. Al-Qaida's leadership is forced to hide in off-grid locations like the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, but its dream of totalitarian empire centers on the Middle East. By toppling Saddam, Bush brought this fight home where it belongs - the Persian Gulf.
If the U.S. had concentrated solely on isolated Afghanistan, both the central front, and the cause celebre would have simply been co-located in a state with no strategic significance to either side, playing into al-Qaida's hands.
The more you focus on Afghanistan, the more you're sucked into the far bigger problem next door called Pakistan. Tempting, I know. But, if we can't handle 20 million Iraqis, what makes you think we'd do better with 170 million Pakistanis?
Better to throw down your gauntlet in Iraq because now you've got Iran, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, Saudi Arabia and even Egypt spinning in response. Scary, yes, but - strategically speaking - far more on topic.
The Bush administration screwed up the reconstruction of postwar Iraq, and wasting the Big Bang's momentum on rerunning the whole weapons-of-mass-destruction drama with Iran betrays this crew's stunning lack of strategic imagination. But arguing that Iraq is a diversion in the Long War is likewise strategically myopic.
Are we to fight only where and when al-Qaida decides? Iraq is definitely al-Qaida's cause celebre, but short of withdrawing from the region completely and abandoning Israel, we'll always be annoying the jihadists, so either get used to it or plan on fighting this thing out in your own neighborhood instead.
As for generating more jihadists thanks to Iraq, that's a bit like walking into Franklin Roosevelt's White House in 1944 and wondering out loud why there seem to be more Japanese and Germans fighting us than ever before, just because we had the temerity to fight back.
Applying police statistics (Why isn't terrorism down if police activity is up?) to warfare can be deeply misguided.
We un-built it (Iraq), and they (jihadists) came, providing us a central front with both strategic impact and more favorable terrain - our professionals fighting their professionals over there instead of over here.
The United Nations estimates that, thanks to our economic sanctions, we sentenced 50,000 Iraqis to death annually throughout the 1990s, mostly kids and old people. That's half a million in a decade, not counting all the citizens Saddam kept killing. Our best estimates say fewer than 50,000 Iraqis have died since March 2003. Continue containing Saddam in the meantime, and over 100,000 additional Iraqis would have died - thanks to our realism.
Desert Storm didn't cure our Vietnam syndrome.
It merely exacerbated it because that syndrome wasn't about defeating traditional armies but our unwillingness to master far harder counter-insurgency operations and nation building. Afghanistan alone would not have provided a tipping point.
But our difficulties in Iraq have, finally forcing the U.S. Army and Marine Corps to learn.
No one wants to hear this, but that alone makes our difficult sacrifices there worthwhile. Slowly, but surely, Iraq forges the military we need for this Long War.
The question isn't whether America will change but how much pain will be involved.
Iraq can either make us madder or it can make us smarter.