Dickey: What Baker Must Do on Iraq

We're about to begin our retreat from Iraq. Whether it more resembles a "phased withdrawal" or a rout will be determined by Iran and the complicated game of Texas Hold 'Em being organized right now by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III. He will use all the cards in America's weak hand (most of the best having been thrown away by President George W. Bush), but there will have to be a lot of bluffing. And as James McManus pointed out a few days ago in the Los Angeles Times, poker was, to all intents and purposes, invented by the Persians.

As the antes begin in the next few weeks with the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, the administration may not say it—indeed must not say it—but the Iranians and their Arab acolytes in Syria know the basic bargain already: if they make it easy for the United States to leave, it will; if they try to make the process humiliating, the U.S. will stay longer. There may be side bets about the Iranian nuclear-enrichment program, the future of Lebanon and, oh yes, the fate of the Iraqi people, but retreat is the name of the game. And, yes, President Bush will call it victory.

We shouldn't delude ourselves about the electrifying effect this process will have on America-haters around the world. Already we've heard gloating from Tehran and the group Al Qaeda in Iraq. Somewhere in the hinterlands of Waziristan (if that's where he is), Osama bin Laden and his boys are firing Kalashnikovs in the air. In the halal diners of British mill towns, wannabe jihadis are telling each other they really can change this world while blowing themselves into the next. (Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of Britain's domestic intelligence service, M.I.5, told an audience in London last week that her organization is watching some 1,600 people "who are actively engaged in plotting or facilitating terrorist acts here or overseas.") Many more people who are not and never claimed to be Muslims will relish the spectacle of the United States brought low, not so much because they hate freedom, as Bush would say, but because they detest what he's done with it.

Terrorists will indeed believe that all this is a triumph for their God, their vision, His design. But the United States and its friends would be repeating one of the egregious mistakes that got us into this sorry mess if we allowed the bad-guys' opinions to dictate our strategy and tactics.

The signal error of the Bush administration was to embrace the terrorist rhetoric of war, and then to militarize a conflict that should have been handled all along as a matter for the police, the intelligence services and public diplomacy. The struggle ought to have been focused as a fight against malicious individuals, not their aberrant ideologies, against small criminal groups, not the vast civilizations they claim to represent. ( A report from the James A. Baker III Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations in 2002 tried to make this point before we went into Iraq, but alas …)

That the United States has been able to prevent another attack on its soil is due to the success of a very limited "police action," as it were—the overthrow of the Taliban and the destruction of Al Qaeda's Afghan infrastructure a few weeks after September 11, 2001—followed up by the superb work of cops at home and spooks abroad. The key figures behind 9/11 were from a very small clique led by operational mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. One by one, they were rounded up in various Pakistani cities until finally, in March 2003, KSM himself was nailed. A sleeper network he'd been building for a second strike against the United States was rolled up by police in Pakistan, Feds in Ohio and cops in New York's garment district.

"I think it's a mistake to think that the war against terrorism ought to be won by the armed forces," says Jean-Louis Bruguière, an internationally influential French magistrate who was among the first to see the jihadist threat taking shape in the early 1990s. Now, partly as blowback from the Iraq war, he sees the danger growing. "There are probably as many potential terrorists inside U.S. territory as there are outside," Bruguière told me a few days ago. "It certainly is not the American Army that has the legal possibility to act on American territory. It's the intelligence services that will come into play, it's also law enforcement, along with the judiciary, that will come into play."

And on one point, Bruguière is clear: all of this has to be done within the framework of the law. "To think that you're more effective by acting in ways that are not legal is a fundamental error," said Bruguière. "Legality is what allows legitimacy, and legitimacy is fundamental." Indeed, the legitimacy of Western regimes and their system of laws is the essential target of Al Qaeda's ideologues.

If these basic facts somehow eluded the Bush administration these last six years, we're fortunate that other people—most notably some of the top cops in America's biggest cities—took note. The New York Police Department under Commissioner Ray Kelly now runs one of the most efficient and pragmatic counterterror operations in the world. Among its success stories: deterrence of KSM's plot to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge a year after 9/11. The Al Qaeda operative assigned the job of casing the target saw so many cops so often that he finally messaged back that "the weather is too hot." The NYPD's intelligence gathering operations, headed up by a former deputy director of the CIA, are considered "the gold standard," according to other cops.

Los Angeles Police Commissioner William J. Bratton and academic George L. Kelling, coauthor of the 1996 book "Fixing Broken Windows" ( Touchstone ), argue in a recent essay for the Manhattan Institute's Civic Bulletin that the most effective counterterrorist tactics are in many cases the same as good basic police work which focuses on seemingly petty offenses in order to build a sense of security in the community and cast a wider net for more serious bad guys. "Criminals," they write, "commit many crimes; as it turns out, so do terrorists." Ziad Jarrah, who piloted United Airlines Flight 93 to its destruction on 9/11, was picked up for speeding in Maryland only two days before. Bratton and Kelling ask us to imagine how history might have changed if the state trooper who pulled him over had had access to the CIA's terrorist watch list.

As the post-Iraq terrorist threat "metastasizes," Rand Corporation consultant Brian Jenkins has said, "cops are it. We are going to win this at the local level." Significantly, there are some 700,000 local law-enforcement officers in the United States. There are only 12,000 FBI agents. "Federal agencies are not built to be the eyes and ears of local communities," say Bratton and Kelling, "but local law enforcement—with the right training and support—can be."

In the high-stakes game fighting the terrorist threat against the United States, our long-neglected local cops could just be our ace in the hole.