Al-Zarqawi Gets What's Coming -- But When Will We Have a REAL Anti-Terror Strategy?

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET

Every human being's death is supposed to be a tragedy, but there are some glaring exceptions in my book. Sometimes justice equals mercy, and sometimes it equals punishment. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a murderer and a fundamentalist fanatic who turned his hatred on everyone from families on vacation to Muslim clerics negotiating peace treaties.

I'm not one for literal depictions of an afterlife -- but if by any chance they're right, he'll be having a hot time tonight.

Despite my concerns about extrajudicial acts of violence, eliminating al-Zarqawi always seemed like a good idea to me. I still don't understand why we didn't take him out back before the war when we had the chance.

Former National Security Council member Roger Cressey had a theory. "People (in the Administration) were more obsessed with developing the coalition to overthrow Saddam than to execute the president's policy of preemption against terrorists," he said.

A shocking yet sadly plausible thought: They wanted war with Saddam more than they wanted to actually take out the bad guys that were working against us. It was possible to direct a targeted strike against Al-Zarqawi without starting a war. In fact, most national security analysts would argues that this is exactly the approach we should have been using all along.

They didn't do it.

Not only might al-Zarqawi's death back then slowed the march toward war, but the Administration may also have had concerns about his location at the time. The fact that he wasn't in territory controlled by Saddam might have underscored the uncomfortable fact that Hussein, snake that he was, had no ties with Al Qaeda -- and that the only foreign terrorist group in the country at the time was in supposedly "friendly" country.

How will this affect the war effort? Since estimates put foreign fighters at 4% to 10% of the insurgency , probably not much. But it is a psychological blow, and that shouldn't be underestimated.

That effect would have been more pronounced in the Arab world, however, if we hadn't alienated Muslims worldwide with Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and Haditha. (You see, conservatives, that's one reason we keep raising these incidents: not only are they immoral, but they hurt our national security.)

I'm still disappointed we didn't nail Bin Laden at Tora Bora, either. Remember the Pentagon's insistence in 2001 and 2004 that we never had a shot at him, especially after Kerry "outsourcing" remark"? More people heard those denials than ever read this:

A document from the U.S. military appears to contradict the Pentagon's previous statements that it does not know whether al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden escaped U.S. forces at Tora Bora in Afghanistan in December 2001.

(And by the way -- those false denials were issued by none other than Bush's favorite General, Tommy Franks.)

Why bring this up now? Because al-Zarqawi's death may be just, but it's not a justification for war. In fact, war wasn't needed in order to go after him. Engaging in a state-to-state conflict with Iraq was the ultimate example of the Republicans' "pre-9/11" mentality.

A comprehensive anti-terror campaign requires new thinking that goes beyond state warfare without making the tactical and moral mistakes of the 1960's counterinsurgency initiatives. The Republicans have proven themselves incapable of executing that kind of campaign.

They don't get it: 9/11 did change everything, at least tactically. There fighting the last century's kind of war, for the last century's reasons.

And what are we doing about Ayman Al-Zawahiri while we're bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan deteriorates? He's the doctor turned butcher who slaughtered tourists and reportedly operates as Bin Laden's number two. (He's a lousy poet, too. I dissed him here.) We never hear about Ayman these days. We're too busy fighting the locals we've alienated in Iraq.

As for Al-Zarqawi? I don't know anyone who's crying over him. To paraphrase Jay-Z: Iraq's got 99,000 tragedies, but that bitch ain't one.

A Night Light

UPDATE: I corrected the first name for al-Zarqawi in my first paragraph.