By CLIFFORD D. MAY
SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE
Is the United States a superpower?
For years, we've assumed this was true. It was an easy assumption to make based on the amount of money we spend on our military and the high-tech weapons we've developed, from stealth bombers to precision missiles to satellites that can read license plates.
But to be a superpower means being able to impose your will, by force of arms when necessary. Clearly, if America can't defeat its enemies in Iraq -- the remnants of Saddam Hussein's corrupt regime, Al-Qaida "emir" Abu Musab Zarqawi and suicide bombers eager for their 72 virgins in heaven -- there is nothing superlative about American might.
America-haters understand this, and are encouraged by it. Ingmar Lee, a Canadian reader, e-mails me: "Once upon a time, the rules of war said that one army dressed up in red, the other in blue, marched off to a field, faced each other 100 yards apart, and blew each other away. Whoever ran out of ammo first was the loser. This was the respectable way to fight a war. Nevertheless, people soon realized that such combatants were easily beaten the unconventional way.
"Now the world watches the certain defeat of the American military behemoth unfolding again before our very eyes. (Vietnam defeated the U.S. military in the same way.)
"Watching the defeat of the world's most aggressive and violent nation, its largest consumer, its largest polluter, its fattest population, the hugest debtor nation, we know what's going on. The U.S.A. is going down, and not just in Iraq."
Indeed, defeat in Iraq would be much costlier than was America's retreat in Vietnam. Ho Chi Min never sent agents to hijack planes and slam them into American office buildings. He probably thought that, were he even to attempt such a thing, he'd lose the sympathy of the international community.
Perhaps the international community has changed; perhaps the jihadists simply understand the international community better (see the e-mail from Canada, above). What's more, the jihadists are not coy about their goal: They seek nothing less than the destruction of the "infidel" civilization.
Zarqawi himself put it this way: "We do not wage our jihad in order to replace the Western tyrant with an Arab tyrant. We fight to make God's word supreme, and anyone who stands in the way of our struggle is our enemy, a target of our swords."
Those who say, "Yes, but we wouldn't be fighting Zarqawi in Iraq now if not for the U.S. invasion," are misinformed.
Zarqawi, a Jordanian, was a commander of the anti-American forces in Afghanistan. It is believed that in 2002 he was wounded and fled to Iraq where Saddam provided him medical treatment and refuge. And then, Saddam gave him the freedom to operate, as well.
In October 2002, Zarqawi organized the assassination of an American diplomat, Lawrence Foley, in Amman. Intelligence analysts believe he also was behind the series of suicide bombings in Casablanca in May 2003, the bombing of Turkish synagogues in November 2003, the Madrid train bombings in March and numerous attacks against Sh'ia mosques and worshippers in Iraq throughout the year.
Ansar al Islam
While under Saddam's protection, Zarqawi commuted between Baghdad and the terrorist training camp of the Al-Qaida-linked Ansar al Islam. That camp, located in the north of the country, near the Iranian border, was destroyed by U.S. forces during the 2003 invasion. But many Ansar members escaped and went on to regroup as Ansar al Sunna -- the organization that claimed credit for the recent suicide bombing against American and Iraqi troops in a mess tent near Mosul.
Were Zarqawi to prevail against the United States in Iraq, he would be seen by many people -- not just in the Islamic world (again, see e-mail above) -- as a brilliant general, a second Saladin, a slayer of the "behemoth."
And America would be seen, perhaps correctly, as a former superpower, in possession of a military designed only to fight the last century's enemies.
People would recall what Zarqawi told Osama bin Laden in a letter intercepted by our Kurdish allies about a year ago. Americans, he wrote, "are an easy quarry, praise be to God. We ask God to enable us to kill and capture them, to sow panic among those behind them."
X Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.