A year ago today I crossed the desert border between Kuwait and Iraq with the US Army's 3rd Infantry Division.
Sitting in the back of a Humvee, I was filled with a sense of both trepidation and expectation as we smiled at a sergeant from the Engineering Corps who stood on a sand dune waving an oversized American flag, ushering us into war.
After the September 11 attacks, after the US-led campaign in Afghanistan, the global war on terrorism was entering a new phase. The Bush Administration understood that victory against the forces of global jihad required a wholesale restructuring of the jihadi societies in the Arab and Muslim world.
It required, too, the identification of weak links in the chain of global terrorism that could be targeted and destroyed. Saddam's Iraq was identified early on as a vital link in this chain. By invading Kuwait in 1990, Iraq had rendered itself the only Arab state viewed as an outlaw by the UN.
While the threat emanating from Iraq justified the attack, the UN Security Council resolutions limiting its sovereignty provided the legal and diplomatic justifications for the war.
The US-led overthrow of Saddam's Ba'athist regime has been more effective in advancing the global war on terrorism than its critics claim. But liberation has also made clear the challenges remaining ahead and has served to identify the weaknesses today inherent in the US war effort.
The first and most obvious advantage of the war is that the US has successfully overthrown a regime that was a strong supporter of global jihad. An Oxford Research International poll released this week shows Iraqi support for terrorism ended with Saddam's regime. The poll shows that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis oppose terrorism.
Importantly, the poll demonstrates that the strongest supporters for the US strategy of bringing democracy and freedom to Iraq are the Iraqis themselves.
Eighty-six percent of Iraqis want Iraq to become a democracy. The influence of an Iraqi democracy on the Arab and Muslim world will be immense. The Kurdish riots in Syria that have been going on for the past week are a strong indication of just how powerful a regional influence a democratic Iraq can be. The Iranian regime's attempts to destabilize Iraq and its actions to neutralize and oppress its domestic opponents show also how frightened Iraq's neighbors are of its nascent democracy.
From a military perspective, with its forces in Iraq, the US now has a central base of operations in the Persian Gulf from which US strength can be projected out. The overthrow of Saddam has inarguably augmented US power in the Arab world that now must take seriously threats that would have been discounted as bluster before the invasion.
On the other hand, the US's failure thus far to unravel the puzzle of the Iraqi WMD arsenals remains troubling. While the recent revelations of the corruption in the UN oil-for food program make clear that Saddam was gathering the funds necessary to revamp his military forces after their defeat in the Persian Gulf War, it is unknown what he had at his disposal on the eve of the invasion and where whatever he had is now.
At the same time, Libya's decision to expose its own nuclear program to the US is undoubtedly a result of the US's enhanced strategic posture in the aftermath of the war. But then, Libya's disclosures have served to show that the problem of proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology is more acute and widespread than the US had formerly thought. The depth of Pakistani involvement in both the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs came as a troubling surprise to both the US and the British.
The scope of the threat of nuclear proliferation has made clear two other consequences of the US engagement in Iraq. With the large mass of its combat forces tied down in Iraq for the foreseeable future, the US lacks the forces necessary to launch a campaign against Iran or North Korea today.
These regimes, cognizant of the lack of a US military option against them, are thumbing their noses at the US and moving full speed ahead with their nuclear programs, which they hope will make them immune to US attack.
The war in Iraq also exposed the weaknesses of the US's traditional alliances with Western Europe. These weaknesses were inherent in the alliance which since the end of World War II has been based on European free-riding on US military strength. The NATO member states never contributed significantly to their own defense.
Yet today, while they continue to expect the US to protect them, they no longer feel it necessary to support the US either diplomatically or militarily in its war against global jihad. Given the limitation of the size of the US military, both diplomatic and even symbolic military alliances are vital for the US to deter rogue states like Iran and North Korea.
On the other hand, the war in Iraq has also made clear to the US that it has an alternative set of allies that are not free-riders and that understand the depth of the threat of global jihad to the global order generally and to the well-being of their own nations specifically.
Aside from NATO member nations like Britain, Poland and Italy, Israel, India and Australia have staked their future on the US-led war on terror and are willing to commit their forces to winning the war. Yet in the case of India and Israel, rather than supporting them as allies, the US is pushing both to appease their enemies – the Pakistanis and the Palestinians – that themselves represent key links in the global jihad chain.
In Israel's case, stemming from the US refusal to see Israel as a principal or even secondary ally in the war, the Israeli government is now pursuing a policy of appeasement not only antithetical to what America expects of its European allies, but also counterproductive to the entire war.
An Israeli retreat from Gaza, as the depth of the jihadi network operating in the area becomes more apparent each day, would be disastrous for the US position in the war. It would strengthen the terrorists in Iraq and embolden the Saudis, Egyptians, Syrians and Iranians to continue to defy American demands that they cease their support for terror and their WMD programs.
For President Bush, an embrace of Israel and India would involve the high price of confronting not only America's erstwhile European allies, but also powerful forces within his own administration and party, particularly Secretary of State Colin Powell and former secretary of state James Baker. And yet as he moves into the presidential election, he needs a clear message to voters that will convince them of the need to place national security at the top of their priorities at the ballot box.
The fact of the matter is that the US now leads the global war against a network of Arab and Muslim states and terror groups that together work to destroy the global system led by the US. While the invasion of Iraq took place a year ago, the war itself is only in its opening stages. As the Spanish voters showed last week, much of the world which the US defends still prefers to blame the war on its defender rather than join the fight against its enemies.
The feelings of trepidation and expectation brought on by the US-led invasion of Iraq endure today. The advantages gained from the overthrow of the Ba'athist regime are significant and must be built upon. The obstacles to victory have also been clarified. These include both the withering of America's Cold War alliances and the strength of the global jihad network throughout the Arab and Muslim world.
As the intelligence on the scope of the nuclear programs in the hands of the Iranians and North Koreans becomes clearer, and as the increasing audacity of the jihadis as a result of the Spanish elections shows, the imperative of continuing t
he fight couldn't be greater.
Given the limitations on the size of the US military, it is clear that America cannot win this war alone. It needs allies willing to fight with it. Luckily, it has such allies. But to embrace its allies, the US must take the step it has yet to take. Bush must explain to the American people who their enemies and friends really are, why new alliances must be forged as old ones are discarded, and why new campaigns must be launched and further sacrifices made.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.