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Another Missed Opportunity in the War on Terror

The most unfortunate part of President Bush's October 15 radio address was not his call to "stay the course" in Iraq -- it is now clear that this White House intends to go down with the sinking ship of its Iraq policy no matter the cost to the nation or even its own party. Rather, it was the President's failure to recognize a momentous split within the Jihadists' ranks that could prove as significant to the war on terror as the Sino-Soviet split was to the ultimate victory of the democracies in the Cold War -- if only we take advantage of it.

In his radio address, the President quoted from a July 9, 2005 letter in which Al Queda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri reminded the organization's chief deputy in Iraq, Abu Masab al-Zarqawi, of the "collapse of American power in Vietnam." Mr. Bush naturally used this Vietnam remark to reinforce his oft-stated claim that "the terrorists know their only chance for success is to break our will and force us to retreat."

But what President Bush missed in the letter were signs of a sharp difference in policy between Al Queda headquarters and its nominally-subordinate command in Iraq over the latter's bloody attacks on innocent members of the Shia community. "Many of your Muslim admirers amongst the common folk are wondering about your attacks on the Shia," Zawahiri warned in the letter. "This matter won't be acceptable to the Muslim populace however much you have tried to explain it, and aversion to this will continue."

As Zawahiri tried to remind Iraq's terrorist mastermind Zarqawi: "We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. We are in a ... race for the hearts and minds of our [Muslim people]."

In response, Zarqawi basically told Bin Laden and Zawahiri to go to hell. Not only did he continue his massacres of innocent Shia civilians throughout the summer, but in late September, for the first time, Zarqawi publicly called for total war against the Shia population.

To be sure, Zarqawi is no fool. Rather than publicly reveal the existence of a split between his organization and Al Queda headquarters -- and quite likely be blamed for causing divisions within the global Islamist movement -- Zarqawi simply called the letter a "fake" after it was made public by U.S. intelligence authorities two weeks ago.

With this savvy response, Zarqawi was merely borrowing a page from the playbook of a previous generation of absolutist ideologues, the Marxist-Leninists. When rumors of a Sino-Soviet split first emerged in the early 1960s, if you recall, the Chinese and Soviet communists both denied there were any cracks in international Marxist-Leninist solidarity. And for years afterwards, sadly, U.S. policy continued to treat international communism as monolithic.

Only later, with President Nixon's opening to China, did policymakers finally begin to seize the significant Cold War advantages that could be gained by helping to foment and exacerbate divisions within the communist ranks. It was those divisions that ultimately helped fuel Chinese cooperation in helping to end the war in Vietnam, as well as China's support in hemming in Soviet expansionism -- including by providing substantial (albeit covert) material support for the anti-Soviet resistance fighters in Afghanistan.

Today it appears that Zarqawi is playing the role of Maoist ultra-leftist to an Al Queda that be believes is going "revisionist" (i.e., getting soft). And therein lies the opportunity.

President Bush should have used his radio address to exacerbate this emerging split by, among other things, signaling America's willingness to negotiate a peaceful solution to the Iraqi quagmire, just as President Nixon did the Vietnam quagmire. In addition to quite possibly leading to progress in a resolution of the Iraqi conflict, such a move could not help but further isolate among Muslims worldwide those, like the Zarqawi faction, who have made a fetish of ultra-Jihadist violence to satisfy their bloodlust.

Unfortunately, taking advantage of divisions within the enemy's ranks seems beyond a president who cannot seem to grasp the fact that the war on terror can ultimately only be won politically -- by separating the Jihadists first from each other and then from the Muslim silent majority. Indeed, if there's one thing you can say about President Bush's White House, it's that it never fails to unite the enemy and divide our friends.

What kind of "war on terror" strategy is it, after all, that embarks upon a dangerous military adventure in defiance of world public opinion, fractures our own alliances while uniting and strengthening the enemy's, drives increasing numbers of Muslim moderates into the political embrace of Islamic extremists, and turns a troublesome but largely contained Iraq into a factory for the mass production of Jihadist suicide bombers?

Some might call it a neo-conservative strategy. I call it just plain dumb.


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