Those of us still paying attention to the news coming out of Iraq (an increasingly and depressingly small number) have of late been assured by the Bush administration that the insurgency can be attributed almost entirely to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a terrorist with alleged ties to Osama bin Laden. Vice President Dick Cheney even mentioned him in his debate with Senator John Edwards, saying, "He is responsible for most of the major car bombings that have killed or maimed thousands of people. He's the one you will see on the evening news beheading hostages. He is, without question, a bad guy. He is, without question, a terrorist. We have to deal with Zarqawi by taking him out, and that's exactly what we'll do."
Notwithstanding the fact that responsibility for several of the kidnappings and beheadings have been claimed by groups unaffiliated with Zarqawi and that Zarqawi was little mentioned in the media until relatively recently, we are again and again assured by this administration that Zarqawi is at the root of the insurgency and his capture would lead to a peaceful Iraq. (At the same time, we are told that the insurgency does not really matter after all because "freedom is on the march," and the desire for democracy is so strong in the hearts of Iraqis that it will overcome any string of attacks.)
The problem is that we have heard this line from the administration before. In fact, dating back to September 11, 2001, the administration has consistently named a series of individuals who apparently are causing the United States all this trouble. First, there was Osama bin Laden, who, as the political scene and the wishes of the administration changed, went from terrorist mastermind to "Osama bin Forgotten," as numerous people before me have described him. We were told he was wanted "dead or alive," but that focus quickly shifted to the next evil man, Saddam Hussein. He, we were told, was the root of much danger to the United States and needed to be toppled. We successfully demonized him, reducing him to a single word ("Saddam"), which, in some instances, appeared to be pronounced as closer to "Sodom" or even "Satan."
His toppling, however, put the United States in even greater danger, as he and his sons were alleged to be leading the insurgency, in contravention of the wishes of the majority of Iraqis. All would be well as soon as Hussein was captured. His sons were caught, extra-judicially executed, and displayed on television for the entire world to see. (Notwithstanding, of course, the Geneva Conventions that prohibit such displays and which the United States briefly complained about at the beginning of the war when American POWs were displayed on Iraqi television.) Iraq was on the right track.
But the insurgency continued and we were told that "Saddam" was the mastermind for it all. When Hussein was captured, holed up and looking not at all like an insurgency mastermind, we were told for sure that Iraq was on the right track and the insurgency would soon be suppressed. There was even speculation that Howard Dean's presidential candidacy was doomed because the reason for its existence, the war, was essentially over.
Not only did the insurgency fail to abate, it grew. The evil man this time was Moktada al-Sadr, a low-level cleric who was trading on his father's name to spark a rebellion. After a variety of attempts at negotiation and military suppression, al-Sadr appears to have abandoned his strategy of violence and even appears to be willing to enter politics. ("See, democracy works," we are told.)
Nonetheless, the insurgency continues to this day without reprieve, and with U.S. and Iraqi casualties mounting by the day. It is thus that we find ourselves being told that the true evil man is Zarqawi.
The reason this chronology of evil men is important is that it shows how much the Bush administration has failed to grasp the systemic nature of the problem that the United States faces. By focusing on individuals, the administration personalizes the conflict (not surprising, really, given that the president, when asked in the run-up to the Iraq war, why it was important to eliminate Hussein, said, "He tried to kill my dad, you know."). This allows it to be easily sold politically, but it means that the administration does not notice the seething resentment of the wealth and privilege enjoyed by Americans on the part of many in the Muslim world that people such as bin Laden can exploit but that they do not cause. A rigorous and honest approach to the "war on terror" (even the name is a problem, as it identifies the strategy, terror, and not the enemy, extreme Islamic fundamentalism) would admit that the Muslim world has legitimate grievances that must be heard. Such an approach would ask why middle-class and economically comfortable Saudis would sacrifice their lives by flying planes into skyscrapers. It would ask what non-military policies need to be implemented to give many in the Muslim world the hope and justice they so richly deserve.
Instead, we have an administration that personalizes the conflict so that it can reap its political benefits. Only when the leaders of this country step back from the situation and begin to ask serious questions that delve past the individuals capitalizing on resentment to the heart of the issue will we find ourselves on a path to peace.