10/30/2006 11:33 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Who Cares What the Terrorists Want in Iraq?

In campaign speeches across the country, President Bush accuses war critics of "buying into the enemy's propaganda," while his spokesman argues that the United States shouldn't withdraw from Iraq because that's what the terrorists want.

But who cares what the terrorists want?

The president is trying to change the subject from his obvious foreign policy failures - pacifying Iraq, decreasing terrorism, containing North Korea or catching Osama bin Laden - and define the election as merely a choice between what he wants versus what the terrorists want.

It's a tempting choice, and sounds easy. If our enemies want something, we should want the opposite, right? If terrorists want us to leave Iraq, we have to stay.

Yet Bush's argument is wrong on two levels.

First, even if all our enemies wanted a U.S. withdrawal, it's irresponsible to define our foreign policy reactively, in their shadow.

By talking this way, Bush actually risks strengthening terrorists, suggesting that U.S. foreign policy is crafted in response to their positions, rather than our independent interests and analysis.

Take a different example: Al Qaeda may want the United States to continue supporting Israel because it stokes anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. Yet that is hardly a good reason for the United States to reverse course and end the alliance. Likewise, if terrorists want the United States to leave Iraq, their preference alone is not a good reason to stay.

As the influential hawk Robert Kagan wrote last month, "I would worry about an American foreign policy driven only by fear of how our actions might inspire anger, radicalism and violence in others."

Second, there's strong evidence that al Qaeda actually supports Bush's policy to stay the course in Iraq.

A recent private letter between senior al Qaeda leaders declared their "most important" goal was "prolonging the war" in Iraq. The letter, confiscated in the fatal June attack on the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and translated by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, argues that pinning the United States into an open-ended commitment in Iraq will strengthen jihadists around the world.

On that score, al Qaeda apparently agrees with the administration's famous National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that the U.S. occupation of Iraq is a " 'cause celebre' for jihadists," inspiring new terrorist enemies around the world.

The majority of Americans have reached the same conclusion. In a CNN poll this month, 57 percent say the war has made the United States less safe from terrorism. (The same poll found opposition to the war at an all-time high of 61 percent.)

Ultimately, U.S. foreign policy must address the interests of Americans, not terrorists. Americans want the Iraq war to end because it failed to make us safer, failed to reduce terrorism and failed to deter our enemies.

That may be why a series of prominent Republicans have recently defied the president's campaign message and talked about changing course, from Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner to former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

On Election Day, voters don't need to consult terrorist propaganda or Bush's overheated rhetoric to make up their minds. They can simply decide whether continuing the failed policies in Iraq is in the American interest.

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UPDATE: You can listen to a radio interview about this post with Air America's Young Turks here.

FYI: This post is adapted from my op-ed in the Philadelphia Daily News.