The New York Times - December 11, 2005
White House Letter:
Watchword of the day - Beware the caliphate
Washington - Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said it in a speech last Monday in Washington and again on Thursday on PBS. Eric Edelman, the under secretary of defense for policy, said it the week before in a roundtable at the Council on Foreign Relations. Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, said it in October in speeches in New York and Los Angeles. General John Abizaid, the top American commander in the Middle East, said it in September in hearings on Capitol Hill.
Vice President Dick Cheney was one of the first members of the Bush administration to say it, at a campaign stop in Lake Elmo, Minnesota, in September 2004.
The word getting the workout from the nation's top guns these days is caliphate - the term for the seventh-century Islamic empire that spanned the Middle East, spread to Southwest Asia, North Africa and Spain, then ended with the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258.
Islamic specialists say the word is a mysterious and ominous one for many Americans, and that the administration knows it.
"They recognize that there's a lot of resonance when they use the term 'caliphate,"' said Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst and now a scholar at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, said that the word had an "almost instinctive fearful impact."
So now, warn Cheney and Co., Al Qaeda's ultimate goal is the re-establishment of the caliphate, with calamitous consequences for the United States. As Cheney put it in Lake Elmo, referring to Osama bin Laden and his followers: "They talk about wanting to re-establish what you could refer to as the seventh-century caliphate," to be "governed by Shariah law, the most rigid interpretation of the Koran."
Or as Rumsfeld put it on Monday: "Iraq would serve as the base of a new Islamic caliphate to extend throughout the Middle East, and which would threaten legitimate governments in Europe, Africa and Asia."
General Abizaid was dire, too. "They will try to re-establish a caliphate throughout the entire Muslim world," he told the House Armed Services Committee in September, adding that the caliphate's goals would include the destruction of Israel. "Just as we had the opportunity to learn what the Nazis were going to do, from Hitler's word in 'Mein Kampf,"' Abizaid said, "we need to learn what these people intend to do from their own words."
A number of scholars and former government officials take strong issue with the administration's warning about a new caliphate, and compare it to the fear of communism spread during the Cold War. They say that although Al Qaeda's statements do indeed describe a caliphate as a goal, the administration is exaggerating the magnitude of the threat as it seeks to gain support for its policies in Iraq.
In the view of John Esposito, an Islamic studies professor at Georgetown University, there is a difference between the ability of small bands of terrorists to commit attacks across the world and global conquest.
"It is certainly correct to say that these people have a global design, but the administration ought to frame it realistically," said Esposito, the founding director of Georgetown's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. "Otherwise they can actually be playing into the hands of the Osama bin Ladens of the world because they raise this to a threat that is exponentially beyond anything that Osama bin Laden can deliver."
Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, said that Al Qaeda was not leading a movement that threatened to mobilize the vast majority of Muslims.
A recent poll he conducted with Zogby International of 3,900 people in six countries - Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon - found that only 6 percent sympathized with Al Qaeda's goal of seeking an Islamic state.
The notion that Al Qaeda could create a new caliphate, Telhami said, was simply wrong. "There's no chance in the world that they'll succeed," he said. "It's a silly threat." On the other hand, more than 30 percent in Telhami's poll said they sympathized with Al Qaeda because it stands up to America.
The term caliphate has been used internally by policy hawks in the Pentagon since the planning stages for the war in Iraq, but the administration's public use of the word increased this past summer and autumn, around the time that American forces obtained a letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the No. 2 leader in Al Qaeda, to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the group's top agent in Iraq.
The 6,000-word letter, dated early in July, called for the establishment of a militant Islamic caliphate across Iraq before Al Qaeda moved on to Syria, Lebanon and Egypt and then a battle against Israel.
In recent weeks, the administration's use of caliphate has only intensified as Bush has launched a campaign of speeches to try to regain support for the war. Bush himself has never publicly used the term, although he has repeatedly described the caliphate, as he did in a speech last week when he said that the terrorists want to try to establish "a totalitarian Islamic empire that reaches from Indonesia to Spain."
Six days earlier, Edelman made it clear. "Iraq's future will either embolden terrorists and expand their reach and ability to re-establish a caliphate, or it will deal them a crippling blow," he said. "For us, failure in Iraq is just not an option."