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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Questionable Risk-Reward Analysis For Rumsfeld's Iraq Trip

By J.M. Berger

"If anybody thinks that I'm here to throw water on a fire, they're wrong," Donald Rumsfeld told reporters en route to Iraq in a surprise visit that was truly a surprise.

Truer words have probably never been spoken. While painted as a "rally 'round the troops" visit, Rumsfeld's sudden appearance in Baghdad is as baffling as it is risky.

While there are certainly much better than even odds that Rumsfeld will survive the trip, there's a serious question about what realistic benefit is available to offset the not-insubstantial amount of risk.

al Qaeda-linked terrorists in Iraq have already tried to assassinate visiting U.S. officials, including a rocket barrage attack against Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in October 2003.

Since then, the situation in Iraq has deteriorated dramatically, especially in light of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal (related story).

Further adding to the risk, a message purported to come from Osama bin Laden recently offered rich rewards for the assassination of U.S. officials in and out of Iraq, including CPA Administration Paul Bremer and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The message also offered 10,000 grams of gold, about $137,000, for killing the top military commander in Iraq at any given time, which would certainly include Rumsfeld.

Even a "near miss" assassination attempt could prove to be a P.R. problem, especially if bystanders are killed, although with the proper spin, it could be made into a propaganda tool to galvanize the rapidly dwindling base of U.S. voters who support the war in Iraq. Any high profile attack or even a kidnapping in Rumsfeld's vicinity could constitute a propaganda win for Iraqi militants.

The visit should help troop morale somewhat, depending on what comments Rumsfeld makes while in the country, but his ability to meet with and inspire the forces in Iraq will be severely hampered by the need for security during the visit.

Rumsfeld's ability to "rally the troops" is debatable, but his ability to inflame the Arab world is fairly well established. No matter how he conducts himself during the trip, his visit isn't likely to calm the Iraqis, and it could well create even more anger.

So with no real benefit on the ground in Iraq, and a sharply heightened risk of assassination, who is Rumsfeld trying to impress with this visit?

His audience of choice is probably the U.S. Congress, where calls for his resignation have been slowly building. Even on that front, the political capital isn't likely to extend much longer than the duration of the trip itself.

No matter how you cut the cards, the gamble of going to Iraq at this time means taking on an awful lot of risk for very little apparent reward. Unless Rumsfeld has a truly surprising rabbit to pull out of his hat, it's hard to imagine any way that the odds favor this gambit.


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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