Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden; drawing by David Levine

At this writing it seems certain that there will be a war in Iraq. It is the wrong war to fight. I am not waiting for the next report of Hans Blix: I already believe that Iraq is hiding chemical and biological weapons. I also believe that it is hiding a few dozen missiles in western Iraq. Yet, while holding these beliefs, I still maintain that this is the wrong war.

If you were to ask American officials after September 11 what the enemy is, you would hear three different answers: world terrorism, weapons of mass destruction in the hands of evildoers like Saddam Hussein, and radical Islam of the sort promoted by Osama bin Laden. I believe that the muddleheadedness in the American thinking about the war against Iraq comes from conflating these three answers as if somehow they were one and the same. In fact they are very different, with very different and incompatible practical implications.

In my view radical Islam of the sort promoted by bin Laden is and should be regarded as the enemy. And fighting Saddam Hussein will greatly help this enemy rather than set him back. This will be true even if the war is successful, let alone if it turns out to be unsuccessful.

The Islamic world, which consists of a seventh of the world’s population, is on the verge of what in the old-fashioned jargon was called a “revolutionary situation.” Lenin characterized the revolutionary situation as one in which the masses can’t stand the regime anymore, and the regime finds it very hard to control them. In almost all the Islamic countries, over 50 percent of the population is made up of young people under eighteen. Their prospects in life are very bleak, and yet they have a sense of a glittering life elsewhere that comes mostly from the Western press, television, movies, and the Internet. This makes the gap between their prospects and their dreams very painful.

There are two ways to go about dealing with this explosive gap. The first is to enhance the economic prospects of people in the Islamic world and work for a better life for them, and the second is to change people’s expectations of life by changing their notion of what constitutes the good life. Secular ideologies work on real-life prospects, while religious ideologies work on dreams. And when secular ideologies fail, as they have so miserably in the Islamic countries, the attraction of the dreams encouraged by religious ideologies increases many times over.

Radical Islam is making a revolutionary bid for the allegiance of the Islamic world. The attempts of its leaders to increase their following comes in two versions. There is the “Stalinist” version, which is a revolution in one country of the sort successfully made by Khomeini in Iran. A successful Islamic revolution in a major country would, or so it is hoped, serve as a model for revolutions in other Islamic countries. And then there is a “Trotskyite” version of the Islamic revolution, which aims to export the revolution to the entire Islamic world right away.

Bin Laden is trying to promote a permanent and universal Islamic revolution. The idea is to use terror as propaganda: to stage spectacular actions such as the attack on the “Babylonian” towers of Manhattan, the emblem of the idolatrous American shrines. The aim is certainly not to convert America to Islam. It is rather to recruit a large revolutionary cadre that will eventually take over the Islamic world, starting perhaps on the holy ground of Arabia and getting rid of what is seen as phony and compromised Wahhabism there, and then spreading a new and revitalized puritanical Wahhabism throughout the Islamic world.

Terror as propaganda-by-action counts on one thing: the overreaction of its victims. Out of anger and frustration the victims will respond by punishing bystanders, who will react by becoming more radical in their feelings and more susceptible to recruitment. Fighting terror is a delicate matter, and there is little sign that it has been understood in Washington. The war in Afghanistan notwithstanding, the war against terror is not a conventional war in which one can assign well-defined targets for the US Air Force to hit. It is also not a police operation, such as fighting the mafia. It is something in between, and this calls for a different strategy. But the last thing one should do is fall for “the fallacy of the instrument,” namely to use the instrument you know how to use just because it is the only instrument you know how to use.

I shall say something briefly about how the right battle should be fought, with the right instruments. But I want first to address the issue of how the wrong war should be avoided.

Most of the regimes in the Arab world are what I call mukhabarat regimes. “Mukhabarat” is the Arabic term for intelligence services, but it is the generic term for the entire apparatus of internal security services. So a mukhabarat regime is a regime run by the internal security forces, largely in its own interests. It does not matter whether the ruler is called a king or a president (who may be elected by 99 percent of the population); the regime is still a mukhabarat regime, concerning itself mostly with staying in power. There are, to be sure, differences in the degree of brutality and sophistication among the various mukhabarat regimes; Saddam’s is perhaps the most oppressive.


Whatever cynical use of religious propaganda has been made by Saddam throughout his long battle with Khomeini or during his current struggle against Israel, his regime is brutally secular. His mukhabarat people may see radical Islamists, and may harbor some of them, but they meet them mainly in his wretched prisons. Bin Laden himself, while supporting in his recent broadcast the Muslims of Iraq against “America and its allies,” also said that “socialists are infidels,” whether in “Baghdad or Aden.” Whether Saddam is a cynic or not, is he capable of supplying bin Laden’s organizations with the chemical and biological weapons that I believe he has?

Saddam Hussein is bad, but he is not entirely mad. More than anything else he wants to stay in power. Given the fact that he is constantly being watched, he would be mad to put his fate in the hands of a lieutenant of bin Laden by collaborating with al-Qaeda just for the purposes of taking revenge on the Americans. The issue about weapons of mass destruction does not turn on the morality of Saddam Hussein but on his rationality. More than a few other regimes would provide bin Laden with chemical and biological weapons before Saddam would.

Bush has made it clear that he would not take “yes” from Saddam as an answer to his demand for disarmament, and he wants to attack Iraq come what may. Had Saddam provided Hans Blix with an accurate list of his weapons it would likely have been taken as a sign that the list was only “the tip of the iceberg” and that he was hiding far more. There is no way for Saddam to get it right with the Americans—unless he were to abdicate. Pushed into a corner, he may be tempted, as his final legacy, to use his biological and chemical weapons, mainly against Israel. This would not be an easy thing to do, but it is a genuine possibility. I find it puzzling that my fellow Israelis find the temptation to support this war irresistible. Given the immediate danger to Israel, it is a temptation Israelis should resist in their own interest.

There is very little patience now with moral commentators concerned about the damage a war will do to the Iraqi people. But recall that as a result of the Gulf War, which seemed to most of the world a huge video game, some 150,000 Iraqi civilians were killed. One can only guess how many civilians will be killed as a result of the coming war, but there will be many, and this is another good reason to spare the Iraqis from liberation by guided missiles.

As for the “right” war, it should respond to an Islamic world on the verge of a “revolutionary situation.” This, rather than terror, is the main problem that the world faces today; terror is a nasty symptom of this situation. The global economy has torn apart the social and economic safety nets in Islamic societies. In many countries it was left to Islamist political organizations, whether in Egypt, Pakistan, Gaza, or elsewhere, to provide a safety net: this too became propaganda-by-action, and often successful action at that. I find it hard to believe that any ideology, except some benign version of Islam, can successfully compete both against the mukhabarat regimes and against the menacing Islamism of bin Laden. The ideology that will address both the prospects and the dreams of the people in these countries cannot be imposed or manipulated from the outside; but it can and should be helped from the outside.

This is for the long run. In the short run we face bin Ladenism, which has no single territorial base, although it has concealed bases in different parts of the world. This is the enemy, as bin Laden made clear in his recent broadcast. And as difficult and frustrating as it is, it should be targeted carefully and locally rather than globally. The governing principle should be: Do not overreact. Acting against Iraq is a glaring example of overreacting.

—Jerusalem, February 13, 2003

This Issue

March 13, 2003