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Al Qaeda and America’s Role in the World

Today, Rear Admiral Patrick Driscoll, a spokesman for the Multi-National Force in Iraq, seemed to back away from recent remarks made by Ryan Crocker. Speaking to reporters yesterday in Najaf, the American ambassador summarized the trend of developments in Iraq this way: “You are not going to hear me say that al Qaeda is defeated, but they’ve never been closer to defeat than they are now.” Today, Driscoll stated that the group remains “a very lethal threat.”

Nonetheless, the military spokesman pointed to important signs of progress. Last week, the number of attacks “decreased to the level not seen since March 2004,” Driscoll noted, and violence has fallen 70 percent since the surge began a year ago. Of course, al Qaeda can still mount attacks, and a well-timed surge of its own could determine the outcome of the American presidential campaign. Yet, as Driscoll declared, “We will not allow them to reorganize themselves.”

So if present trends hold and the Iraqi government continues to assert itself, what will be the effect on American opinion? “The national mood is retrenchment,” writes James Traub in today’s New York Times. “We recognize that our heroic designs have come to grief in Iraq. We see how very little we have accomplished in the Middle East, for all our swelling rhetoric.”

Of course, Traub has correctly gauged public sentiment in an anti-Bush, anti-idealism America. Just look at the amazing trajectory of the “change” candidate, Barack Obama. And despite the American military’s continuing success in Iraq, there is pressure on the President to end the war, bring troops home, and disengage from the world as fast as we can. Yet this is nothing new. We do this after every conflict, whether ending in victory (both World Wars), defeat (Vietnam), or stalemate (Korea). Last decade, we turned away from historic responsibilities after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yet the general sentiment that Traub describes may not be as long-lasting as many assume. For one thing, the desire to turn inward will be undercut by the success in Iraq that Crocker and Driscoll describe. And, of course, the world has a way of drawing Americans back into involvement in its affairs. We can solve some of its problems peacefully, but others are not capable of amicable resolution. As Madeleine Albright once said, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation.”

It is now up to President Bush to continue to remind the American people that we, whether we want to assume the role or not, remain the only guarantor of the international system. With his Knesset speech he redirected the national conversation in the presidential campaign. Now he can take this discussion and put it into the broader context.


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