Islamic Extremism, Osama bin Laden, and the United States
Dadahead, a commenter, has maintained that the "war on terror" is an invention of the U.S. government, intended to hoodwink us into submission. In Dada's opinion, the phrase "war on terror" is too nebulous. I agree. A more accurate phrase would have been a "war on Islamic Extremism," because that is what we are fighting against. This brings me to Dada's next point of contention, which is that the government cannot declare war on such an entity; we can only be at war with a "group of terrorists" or "Osama" himself. Then Dada raises the time-old leftist question: when did Iraq declare war on the U.S.?
Well, Dada, here is your (rather long) answer...
It all started in the years following World War I. The Middle East was haphazardly divided up between France and Britain into various colonies, protectorates, and spheres of influence. Who owned what isn't really important; what is important is the end result: various ethnic groups smashed together into one country (Iraq is the best example, but it happened in other places, notably, Lebanon), local strongmen left as puppet rulers once the official colonial time ended, a strong undercurrent of a very authoritarian religious tradition, and continued foreign meddling due to the vast oil reserves.
Then Israel was created.
The creation of Israel is a defining moment in Middle East history. Now there was a unifying force for the Arab world, something to band them together. Before they were simply weak puppet governments, dominated by foreign powers. Now they were on the front lines of the Cold War, members of the Soviet bloc, and unified under Nasser's "pan-arabism." This unifying force lead to the PLO and its terrorism. But that's not what is important in regards to Islamic terrorism.
What is important is what sprung up in Egypt in response to the avowed secularism of Nasser's pan-Arabism. The Muslim Brotherhood was the first modern-day group that could be branded as "Islamic extremists." In truth, their demands weren't far off from what Osama has said in his numerous fatwas and communiques: the end to secular government and the creation of a pan-Middle Eastern, if not worldwide, Islamic caliphate. The reason many don't know about the Muslim Brotherhood is that their terrorism was localized to Egypt. The reason they were never able to expand is twofold: one, they were brutally repressed by the secular Egyptian government, and two, they were unable to obtain the support of a national government to carry out international operations, as the PLO was able to obtain and carry out.
This all changed in 1979. Now there was a government in the Middle East that was based on the principles of sharia law and that demanded the creation of a "new caliphate." This paradigm shift resulted in the world's first experience with Islamic terrorism. The U.S. Embassy is bombed in Beirut, killing 50+ staffers. A U.S. Marine barracks is bombed a few months later, killing 234 Marines. Islam's holiest city, Mecca, suffers a takeover by Islamic extremists; after the Saudi security forces respond, the world is also introduced to the Saudi way of dealing with Islamic terrorism: send those responsible overseas, and pay off their compatriots by providing government funding for the preaching of hate via Wahabbi madrassas (schools). In return, the Kingdom is spared further attacks.
Moving back to Beirut, the world is also introduced to the U.S.'s "Beirut Solution" to terrorism: turn tail and run without responding, hoping that if we lay low for a while, we'll be left alone. This solution works surprisingly well throughout the rest of the 1980s: there are no large scale Islamic terrorist attacks, or even PLO attacks for that matter. In reality, however, the situation is simply festering. Most Islamic extremists are fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, where the CIA is running a very effective shadow war, bleeding the Red Army dry. The only downside to this tactic is that a large amount of CIA money has to be funnelled through Pakistani ISI (their CIA). The ISI was very sympathetic to Islamic extremists, which meant that most of the ISI money, some Saudi money, and some U.S. money was funneled to the same people who preached hate against everything Western and everything American. Osama himself showed up rather late to the war; he never received any U.S. aid or money, but was able to fund his own private army due to his large fortune. He took part in a few battles, but his main role was as a supplier, financier, and leader. The end of the war in Afghanistan left a cadre of battle-hardened Islamic extremists ready for the next jihad. They would find it in 1991, as a result of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
Backing up a bit, Iraq has been at war with Iran for most of the decade. While it is true that Hussein was originally seen as a possible counter-balance to Iran, this plan was quickly dropped once Washington got a full picture of just how brutal the Iraqi regime was. After the war ended, Saddam took a few years off, and then invaded Kuwait. The invasion saw Osama issue a call for a jihad against Saddam, with Osama as its head. The troops used would be the jihadis who had fought with Osama in Afghanistan. The Saudi government turned this foolhardy plan down in favor of inviting U.S. troops to Saudi soil. Osama's reaction to this was so virulent and explosive, and in support of terrorism, that he was forced off of Saudi soil into exile in Sudan.
In the meantime, Islamic terrorists struck again. A cell of Muslim Brotherhood members, led by the Egyptian Blind Sheik, made plans for an attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. While they did not achieve their stated goal of toppling one tower onto the other, the resulting car bomb still kills 6 and wounds hundreds. That same year, a young disgruntled Pakistani extremist opens fire outside CIA Headquarters, killing 2 CIA field officers. Throughout the rest of the 1990s, there are a series of Islamic extremist attacks, the major ones being the bombing of the Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia, the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, the narrowly foiled Millenium bombing plot, and of course, 9/11.
Now, its fairly obvious where Osama, Afghanistan, and Islamic extremists fit into the picture. Whether we like it or not, they have declared war on us. But what about Iraq? Well, overlooking the fact that they have committed repeated acts of war by shooting at U.S. warplanes, Iraq is endemic of the systemic problem in the Middle East. If you look back over the previous paragraphs, the one unifying factor to all of the problems with Islamic terrorism is that the governments in the Middle East have failed their people. The governments are totalitarian regimes, where the people have no voice. As a result, they channel their anger in a different direction: into religion. When you combine the fanatical version of Islamc preached in many Middle Eastern mosques and the anti-American propaganda spread by the repressive governments in order to distract their people from the governments' own failings, you have an explosive situation in which Islamic extremism was born and has grown. The only way to break the cycle is to introduce an alternative to the totalitarian government, one that provides a positive outlet for the people's emotions and passions. Saddam Hussein's Iraq provided a perfect opportunity to change the status quo.
So, the short answer to your question is: we are at war with Iraq because it was ruled by a brutal, oppressive regime that provided a unique chance for a paradigm shift in the Middle East. This paradigm shift is the only hope for victory in the war against Islamic extremism; if the paradigm shift isn't fully successful, the best we can hope for is periods of relative calm, broken by periods of strife and terror.