Give Dick Cheney credit. The man doesn’t give up on arguments easily—even when the evidence has made them unsupportable and even offensive.
Cheney continued suggesting that Iraq was behind the 9/11 attacks long after the rest of the Bush administration gave that up. Last week, he did something similar, reiterating in an interview his certainty that the war in Iraq is “in part responsible for the fact that we haven’t been hit again in nearly five years. That’s no accident. The fact is, we’ve taken the battle to the enemy. That’s been the key to the safety and security of the American people these last few years, and we need to continue to do it.”
This is not just post-Zarqawi giddiness: Cheney has an eye on public opinion and knows that this myth has legs. As pollster Celinda Lake pointed out in the Washington Post last week, voters respond positively to the claim “We’ll either fight terrorists there or we’ll fight them here.” This is likely to be a central part of the Republican defense of the war in mid-term electioneering.
So consider some reasons why this argument deserves a stake in the heart.
To begin with the obvious, Britain and Spain were both fighting in Iraq, and it didn’t prevent them from being attacked. Whatever has accounted for the quiet at home, it isn’t the combat in Iraq.
In addition, “security and safety” have not exactly been the lot of all Americans in the last few years. Just before Cheney made his remarks, the US death toll in Iraq reached 2,500. The administration can breathe a sigh of relief that the tally is unlikely to reach the 3,000 mark that most people associate with Sept. 11 when the fifth anniversary of the attacks arrives in three months. But the number is close, suggesting that as a counterterrorism campaign, the war in Iraq has been a massive error. One might ask the vice president whether it would not be more correct to say that the terrorists are not attacking us in the United States because it is easier to kill Americans in Iraq.
If the strategy is working, then the number of terrorists should be declining. But a State of Iraq chart published in The New York Times last Friday shows the number of foreign fighters—those most likely to carry out attacks against Americans—is growing, up to 1,500 from 1,000 a year ago. Those migrating to Iraq are not the remnants of Al Qaeda. Instead, as studies by the Israeli scholar Reuven Paz and the Saudi researcher Nawaf Obeid have shown, they are newly radicalized individuals with scant experience in Islamist violence.
Iraqi insurgents—an increasingly jihadist cohort—now number 20,000, according to the Times chart, a 20 percent increase over the last year. That comes after a year in which US troops were scoring regular successes against the rebellion.
Finally, there is the whistle-past-graveyard quality of Cheney’s contention: In 2004 Madrid was bombed, and in 2005 terror crossed the English Channel and London was attacked. Just weeks before Cheney’s interview, a conspiracy was broken up on this side of the Atlantic in Toronto, and its members appear to have had contact with jihadists who were operating in the United States.
The argument that fighting in Iraq is making us safer is pernicious, but it will not be knocked down by the Democrats’ silliness on the issue, such as when they try to counter White House claims that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror. In last week's Iraq debate, Democratic Representative Nancy Pelosi of California said, “Republicans in Congress continue to try to mislead the American people by suggesting a link between the war in Iraq and the war on terror. They are distinct...and efforts to portray one as part of the other are a disservice to the truth.” They are no longer distinct, but the reason is not that US strategy has succeeded but that it has backfired, creating terrorists where there weren’t any.
Critics need to argue the facts to show that the fighting in Iraq is not making us safer. And no one should expect Cheney to cease repeating this claim. It is depressingly clear what it will take for him to drop this argument. The pleasure of not hearing it again will in no way compensate for the costs.
Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon are coauthors of The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting it Right.