President George W. Bush yesterday gave one of his most comprehensive speeches to date on U.S. strategy in the global war against terrorism and how Iraq fits into that strategy. Speaking before an audience at the National Endowment for Democracy, Bush stressed the importance of the long-term ideological struggle against Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network and other terrorist groups. While underscoring the urgency of the threat, Bush cautioned against pessimism, stressing that the universal appeal of freedom and democracy would ultimately triumph over the totalitarian ideology of radical Islam, just as it defeated communism during the Cold War.
By identifying the enemy specifically as Islamic radicalism, rather than the more generic "terrorism," Bush's latest speech is a step forward in the evolving U.S. approach to defeating al Qaeda. The change signifies a recognition that terrorism is only a part of bin Laden's revolutionary strategy for imposing his harsh Islamic ideology on the Muslim world and that "bin Ladenism" will continue to pose a threat long after the terrorist leader has been captured or killed. To defeat al Qaeda, the U.S. and its allies must not only destroy its leadership, but also destroy its ability to recruit replacements by discrediting its violent ideology.
The President described in detail the nature, goals, and strategy of the Islamic extremists: "This form of radicalism exploits Islam to serve a violent, political vision: the establishment, by terrorism and subversion and insurgency, of a totalitarian empire that denies all political and religious freedom." Unlike in previous speeches, he repeatedly mentioned bin Laden and quoted bin Laden's own statements to describe the strategy of the al-Qaeda movement.
Bush correctly pointed out that "We're not facing a set of grievances that can be soothed and addressed. We're facing a radical ideology with inalterable objectives: to enslave whole nations and intimidate the world." He ruled out any attempt at appeasement and prepared the nation for a long ideological struggle against the militant network and its enablers, including Iran and Syria. However, the outcome of this struggle is not in doubt because "Islamic radicalism, like the ideology of communism, contains inherent contradictions that doom it to failure." He noted, "Those who despise freedom and progress have condemned themselves to isolation, decline, and collapse. Because free peoples believe in the future, free peoples will own the future."
Bush also restated his five-point strategy for defeating Islamic terrorists: prevent attacks before they occur; deny terrorists weapons of mass destruction; deny terrorists sanctuary; prevent terrorists from gaining control of any nation; and promote democratic reform, respect for human rights, and enforcement of the rule of law in the Middle East to undermine the ability of terrorists to recruit new followers.
The President discussed Iraq in the context of the broader war on terrorism, drawing on bin Laden's own words to conclude, "The terrorists regard Iraq as the central front in their war against humanity. And we must recognize Iraq as the central front in our war on terror." He rejected the claims of critics who argue that the war in Iraq has increased the threat of Islamic terrorism: "I would remind them that we were not in Iraq on September the 11th, 2001-and al Qaeda attacked us anyway. The hatred of the radicals existed before Iraq was an issue, and it will exist after Iraq is no longer an excuse."
He warned, "Some observers also claim that America would be better off by cutting our losses and leaving Iraq now. It's a dangerous illusion refuted with a simple question: Would the United States and other free nations be more safe or less safe with Zarqawi and bin Laden in control of Iraq, its people, and its resources?" A victory for Islamic radicalism in Iraq, like the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan, would embolden terrorists and enable them to build a base for future attacks. A premature American withdrawal from Iraq would not lead to peace, but to greater violence there and elsewhere: "In Iraq, there is no peace without victory." This conclusion is supported by revelations contained in a letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's second ranking leader, to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda's franchise in Iraq, that was seized in a counterterrorism operation in Iraq. The Zawahiri letter makes clear that al Qaeda intends to transform Iraq into a base for exporting terrorism and revolution if it can drive out U.S. forces.
Bush's speech, originally scheduled for the anniversary of the September 11 attacks before it was postponed due to Hurricane Katrina, also contained hard news about the continuing threat of al Qaeda. Bush revealed that the U.S. and its allies had "disrupted at least ten serious al Qaeda terrorist plots since September the 11th, including three al Qaeda plots to attack inside the United States." He warned that "the enemy is wounded-but the enemy is still capable of global operations."
To defeat such a far-flung global network, Bush stressed the importance of international cooperation, particularly with allies in the Muslim world. He stressed, "These militants are not just the enemies of America, or the enemies of Iraq; they are the enemies of Islam and the enemies of humanity." He noted, "Many Muslim scholars have already publicly condemned terrorism" but called on other Muslim leaders to follow suit, saying, "The time has come for all responsible Islamic leaders to join in denouncing an ideology that exploits Islam for political ends and defiles a noble faith."
President Bush's speech was important proof that his Administration recognizes the importance of the global war of ideas as well as the war against terrorists in Iraq and other battlefields. The President set crucial long-term goals and outlined a broad strategy for defeating Islamic radicalism. Now it us up to his Administration to follow through with effective operational plans to build a stable democracy in Iraq, encourage democratic, economic, and educational reforms in the Middle East, and work with a broad coalition of allies in the Muslim world and elsewhere to discredit and defeat the lethal ideology of radical Islam.
James Phillips, Ph.D. is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.
George W. Bush, "President Discusses War on Terror at National
Endowment for Democracy," October 6, 2005, at
See "Fighting the War on Terrorism on Many Fronts," Mandate for
Leadership, The Heritage Foundation, 2005, at
 See Douglas Jehl and Thom Shanker, "Al Qaeda Tells Ally in Iraq to Strive for Global Goals," The New York Times, October 7, 2005, p. A10, at http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/07/politics/07zarqawi.html.