The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Flypaper? Try Indiscriminate Fumigation

June 27, 2005

I don’t agree with Rodger that the Iraq War was totally unjustifiable. Rodger and I do, presumably, agree that the Bush administration’s marketing of the war was marked by “threat inflation” at best, and outright deceit at worst.

I am certain, however, that we agree that they’ve done a terrible job – from day one – of actually waging warfare in Mesopotamia. Indeed, even most of my pro-war friends and colleagues have been shocked at the gross incompetence of the administration when it comes to the invasion and occupation.

Thus, although I’m not some hard-core anti-war type, I simply can’t agree with Bill Roggio’s defense of the “flypaper” justification for the war. Bill argues:

The Flypaper theory has come under much derision since it was proposed, but it is difficult to deny the US presence in Iraq has attracted important and hard to detect members of al Qaeda. Many al Qaeda members have been killed or captured in Iraq while to engage the US Army and Marines on conditions disadvantageous to the jihadis. Iraq has forced al Qaeda to commit its limited resources to the battle, and experienced leaders and operators have thrown themselves against US and Iraqi forces with reckless abandon.

The Coalition has netted some very important jihadis the past couple of days.

Some of his list is impressive. Other names on it are people who didn’t really have much operational capability against the US, or who could have been netted by other means. Certainly, the US probably could have decapitated Zarqawi’s operation through military operations in the Kurdish zone prior to the war. Why we did not remains a mystery to me (conspiracy arguments aside).

But I just can’t see how Bill can make this argument on pragmatic grounds. Around 1,700 US servicemen and servicewomen have been killed in Iraq. Another 18,000 have been injured or suffered badly enough from disease to be evacuated from the country. Although their figures are unreliable, Iraq Body Count estimates a civilian death toll of over 20,000.

To put this in perspective, around 2,700 people died in the World Trade Center attacks. The embassy bombings killed in the low triple digits.

The US invasion of Afghanistan has almost certainly crippled the organizational capabilities of Al-Queda as such, leaving uncoordinated (but still deadly) cells of related and semi-related militant Islamic terrorists left to mount terrorist attacks.[fn 1] How many of these cells are getting dragged into Iraq? Hard to say. How many of the terrorists in Iraq would even be strapping on bombs if the US weren’t in that country? Again, hard to say. Could these cells have pulled off something on the order of a repeat 9/11? Hard to say, but probably not in the immediate future.

All in all, to the extent that the “flytrap” data Bill presents survives counterfactual scrutiny (in other words, to the extent that we are certain these people wouldn’t have been killed or apprehended if the US hadn’t invaded Iraq), it doesn’t look like there’s much of a case here. If you want to create a flytrap, make sure that you don’t wind up trapping too many of your own people, and innocent civilians, in it.

1The Madrid bombers were able to kill somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 people, but it would be perverse to argue that such an attack “proves” that Iraq is functioning as a cost-effective trap for terrorists.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.