Waking Up to the War

By BOB HERBERT The New York Times The public is catching on. Americans heading into the Fourth of July weekend are increasingly concerned that the war in Iraq, rather than bringing stability to the Middle East and a greater sense of safety here at home, has in fact made the world more dangerous and the U.S. more vulnerable than ever to terror attacks.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll published yesterday found that a majority of Americans now believe the war has increased the threat of terrorism. A New York Times/CBS News poll earlier this week found that 47 percent of respondents believe the terror threat has increased, while only 13 percent say it has declined. Thirty-eight percent of the respondents in that poll said the war had not made a difference.

There is a sound basis for the concern. The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has been a gift-wrapped, gilt-edged recruiting tool for Al Qaeda and its offshoots. If Osama bin Laden had personally designed a campaign to expand the ranks and spread the influence of anti-American terrorists, it's hard to imagine him coming up with a better scenario than the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

"We have created the greatest recruiting tool possible for bin Laden and his ilk," said Bob Boorstin, a national security specialist at the Center for American Progress.

His words echoed the conclusions of the senior Central Intelligence Agency analyst who is the anonymous author of "Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror." The author, who spent years tracking bin Laden and his followers, said, "There is nothing that bin Laden could have hoped for more than the American invasion and occupation of Iraq."

The fact that this war has made America more, not less, vulnerable to terrorism should be treated as a national scandal. But that is not the kind of story that has the legs of, say, the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Or the O. J. Simpson saga.

We have certainly known since Sept. 11, if not before, that terrorism poses the gravest and most immediate threat to the United States. Instead of marshaling the nation's resources and the support of our allies for a sustained, all-out campaign aimed at destroying Al Qaeda and its offshoots, President Bush launched the war in Iraq and turned that country into a breeding ground for such terrorists.

There were warnings. Recruiting by Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups was already surging in early 2003 in response to the buildup for war with Iraq. On March 16, 2003, three days before the start of the war, The Times reported:

"In recent weeks, officials in the United States, Europe and Africa say they had seen evidence that militants within Muslim communities are seeking to identify and groom a new generation of terrorist operatives. An invasion of Iraq, the officials worry, is almost certain to produce a groundswell of recruitment for groups committed to attacks in the United States, Europe and Israel."

We now have nearly 140,000 troops in Iraq, with more on the way, and we'll be bogged down there for years to come. The tremendous costs in personnel and money have drained resources needed to combat terror groups around the world and shore up defenses against terror here at home.

Now the public is tiring of the war. A majority of the respondents in both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal polls said the war was not worth its cost in American lives.

But there is no sign of the war ending. The so-called hand-off of sovereignty this week was a furtive ritual that was far more symbolic than substantive. Three marines were killed in a roadside bombing in Baghdad on Tuesday, a day after the transfer, and another was killed yesterday in Al Anbar, west of Baghdad.

We're holding a terrible hand. There is no exit strategy for American troops in Iraq. There is no plan in our insane tax-cut environment for paying for the war. The situation in Afghanistan, which is part of the real war against terror, has deteriorated. The U.S. military is stretched dangerously thin, lacking sufficient troops to meet its obligations around the world. Homeland security is deeply underfunded. And with the terror networks energized, the feeling among intelligence experts with regard to a strike in the U.S. is not if, but when.