Fighting the terrorists over there - forever?


BOSTON -- It was probably not the wisest metaphor to choose for a country with only 36 miles of shoreline. "Cut and run" is, after all, a nautical term. More to the point, one person's metaphor for cowardice is another's description of speed and survival.

As for the other mantra of war debate? We're still at sea on whether to "stay the (disastrous or not) course."

The good news is that the public seems to have finally recognized the sound of spin. The Karl Rove chorus of "cut and run" isn't striking a chord. We also have many fewer politicians defending war as the way to bring democracy to Iraq. As the squad leader in The War Tapes, a documentary about the New Hampshire National Guard, said, "Then, after that happens, maybe we can buy everybody in the world a puppy."

But over the past two weeks as the House and Senate debated exit and no-exit strategies, there is a phrase in the rhetorical war that has not fallen on deaf ears. It's the assertion that we are fighting the terrorists there so we won't have to fight them here.

As the president said in the State of the Union address, in the West Point graduation speech, in the surprise visit to Baghdad: "We will stay on the offensive against the terrorists, fighting them abroad so we do not have to face them here at home."

In the midst of the mutual taunting and sound biting, this still resonates with the American people. So it's time to ask whether we are indeed fighting terrorists in Iraq so we don't have to fight them in the New York subway. If so, what does it mean? What does it portend?

From the get-go, the Bush administration framed the war in Iraq as self-defense, as part of the war on terror. In fact, Iraq was never on the State Department's dance card of terrorist strongholds. The attempt to link Saddam Hussein to 9/11 was phony. By no stretch of Dick Cheney's imagination was Iraq a front line in the war on terror. But it is now.

Over three years, it's become the recruiting ground, the favorite destination for terrorists who take their place alongside insurgents and civil warriors. No sooner is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi killed than another group claims the brutal torture and murder of two American soldiers as the work of his successor.

If Iraq is the neighborhood in which terrorists have chosen to fight America, are we now sending soldiers to keep them in that neighborhood? Are we now sending sons, daughters, husbands, wives to be the designated terrorist attractions?

Last week at a news conference, The Wall Street Journal's David Rogers, a Vietnam veteran, challenged the House majority leader. "In Vietnam, they used to put us out in these fire support bases and hope we would get attacked. Is that what you are doing?" he asked. "You are putting people in Iraq and hoping they get attacked so you can bring out the terrorists?"

Has it come to this?

What if the unacknowledged "mission" is to keep the terrorists over "there"?

There is no dearth of recruits to terrorism. If the Iraqi front line miraculously becomes a demilitarized zone, terrorists may indeed look for a new American target. The alternative to that worry is an Iraq war with no end in sight.

We've had two weeks of political wrangling - among Democrats and between Democrats and Republicans - over support for a timetable for withdrawal vs. support for a policy with no exit door. The pro-war administration calls any timetable a form of retreat. Yet in Iraq, where escalating violence brings 40 fresh bodies a day to the Baghdad morgue, 87 percent of Iraqis want a timetable for American withdrawal. This administration had no post-Hussein strategy for Iraq. Now it seems it has no post-Iraq strategy for the war on terror.

It's not just the Iraqi government that needs a deadline. It's our government that needs a timetable for withdrawal and a strategy for its aftermath. Cut and run is the mantra in this landlocked argument. But sitting anchored to a failed policy is the danger.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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