WASHINGTON -- We have entered a new phase of the Iraq war since the optimism following the Jan. 30 elections there, and the manifestations of the changes are everywhere.
Every American general who comes out of Baghdad now speaks only in words that are hesitant, relative, depressed. Here at home, the figures emerging from even the Pentagon are frightening: The Army and the Army National Guard are likely to meet only 75 percent of their recruiting targets in the next year.
Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center reported this week that disillusionment is setting in with the American people over Iraq. "We are seeing more and more saying, 'Get the troops out,'" he said this week. "They are getting the continuing portrait of an insurgency that just doesn't quit. Six months ago, 65 percent of Americans were saying the war could meet its goals; now only 46 percent are saying that." London's International Institute of Strategic Studies says American troops will be needed for six more years.
Yet, despite these surface indications of trouble ahead, the administration sticks stubbornly to its underlying thesis: Suicide bombers are religious zealots who must be defeated there, lest they attack us here.
U.S. military presence
The problem now is that the rationalization for all the mistakes that led us into Iraq and keep us there is quite awfully turned on its head. According to ground-shaking analyses by two brilliant, nonideological scholars, it is OUR military presence in the Middle East that is every day CREATING the suicide bombers -- and will continue to do so unless and until we change our policies.
Robert A. Pape, associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago, has also been heading the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism. With a team of analysts, he has studied suicide terrorist bombers from Sri Lanka, where they began, to Israel-Palestine, to Lebanon, to Iraq. He has created a database -- the first ever conceived -- of every suicide bombing and attack around the globe from 1980 to 2003, and his findings are unequivocal.
First, he did not find the bombers to be fanatical or essentially unusual people -- "Suicide terrorists' political aims, if not their methods, are often more mainstream than observers realize," he wrote in his recent book, "Dying to Win." "They generally reflect quite common, straightforward nationalist self-determination claims of their community."
Second, contrary to the beliefs of this administration, religion plays a very small role in their motivations. "Rather," Pape pointed out to me when we met recently at the University of Chicago, "what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. Religion is rarely the root cause."
Third, the president's beloved idea that "regime change" and "democratization" will decrease suicide bombings and other related violence is fatally flawed. In fact, Pape says: "An attempt to transform Muslim societies through regime change is likely to dramatically increase the threat we face. The root cause of suicide terrorism is foreign occupation and the threat that foreign military presence poses to the local community's way of life.
"The stationing of tens of thousands of American combat troops on the Arabian Peninsula from 1990 to 2001 probably made Al-Qaida suicide attacks against Americans ... from five to 20 times more likely. Hence, the longer American troops remain in Iraq and in the Persian Gulf in general, the greater the risk of the next Sept. 11."
Another scholar and analyst who has done outstanding and original work on suicide bombers is Washington's Dr. Rona M. Fields, clinical psychologist and sociologist, and author of "Martyrdom: The Psychology, Theology and Politics of Self-Sacrifice." After 35 years of research on terrorism in 11 different countries, she came to exactly the same conclusions.
"The main thing is that terrorism is a choice people make," Fields told me. "It's not a sickness, and it's not religious as such. It's a choice they make when they feel that their group is threatened."
If these findings are true ... then not only are we finding it treacherous going in Iraq, but every minute we stay there, perceived as invaders in a foreign land, we are perversely creating the dangerous and effective violence against us and the middle-ground Iraqis whom we depend upon.
Universal Press Syndicate