‘Remember the Tet Offensive” is the mantra I have been repeating to myself in recent days as gloomy media accounts of the deepening U.S quagmire in Iraq crowded the airwaves and news pages. For the benefit of those who remember Tet only fitfully or not at all, it was the 1968 uprising by the Communist Vietcong across Vietnam that brought guerrilla warfare to the gates of the U.S. embassy in South Vietnam. It was a dramatic escalation of the war, but it was also a severe defeat for the Vietcong that revealed the fraudulence of their claim to be a people’s army.
Among the many aspects of Tet were that South Vietnam’s population failed to rally to the Vietcong’s standard; that the Vietcong carried out mass murders of the civilian population in the areas it briefly occupied; that many of the Vietcong’s strongest units were destroyed in battle by the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces; and that South Vietnamese forces quickly reestablished the Saigon government’s authority throughout the country.
After Tet, the Vietcong had no chance of winning on their own. They were reduced to being the passengers of the North Vietnamese regular army that carried them to victory in a purely conventional invasion seven years later.
Tet, in addition to being a strategic defeat for the Vietcong, was also ample justification for America’s Vietnam intervention on both humanitarian grounds.
But that is not how it was presented to the people by the U.S. media at the time. As the late Peter Braestrup demonstrated in his magisterial study, Big Story, the mainstream U.S. media depicted Tet as a severe defeat for the United States and as the beginning of an endless quagmire for American forces. That became the conventional wisdom of both the media and political elites. And as a result, the North Vietnamese eventually triumphed on the only battlefield where the United States could be defeated — the American home front.
Fast forward to the present. Here is a very typical mainstream-media summary, from Time magazine as it happens, of the present situation facing U.S. forces in Iraq:
… military men and women under siege, a casualty count that exceeds the toll of the first Gulf War, anti-Americanism in a land where they had been told our forces would be greeted like heroes, costs reaching a billion dollars a week and going up, some troops homesick and disillusioned, their spouses and parents having no idea when they will see their loved ones again — and no end in sight to any of it.
One could add other discouraging details — much of Baghdad is still without electricity, unemployment accounts for half the Iraqi workforce, Saddam Hussein remains at large — to this account.
With or without these extras, however, Time’s picture is false because it is a selection of negatives with none of the positive signs of Iraqi recovery included. And recent signs of revived order and economic recovery are real and impressive: the south and north of Iraq are already stable; food distribution is working well; oil production is now higher than one million barrels a day; schools are open nationwide; town councils are functioning in most major cities; Iraqis are joining the new civil defense organization; and, of course, Uday and Qusay Hussain are no longer planning the murder of U.S. soldiers.
When Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz described some of these developments in a very balanced briefing last week, it was Tet all over again. Media reports virtually ignored the good news and concentrated heavily on his frank admissions the Pentagon had made mistaken assumptions about such matters as Iraqi defections and the likely strength of the resistance after Saddam’s defeat. Suddenly, past Pentagon errors were not “old news” — they were new news, whereas signs of a current Iraqi recovery were no news at all. If getting a true picture of the current Iraqi situation out to the American people was his intention, Wolfowitz might as well have saved his breath to cool his porridge.
Even if the media were to present a balanced picture of Iraq, however, a problem would remain. A jumble of different facts is confusing rather than informative. We need to know which are the relevant and important ones? What will determine whether Iraq turns out to be a quagmire or the beginnings of stability throughout the Middle East? Economic recovery is ultimately vital, of course, but that itself will depend on whether the law, order and stability vital to commerce are first restored. Can the United States restore them?
That question breaks down into three parts:
1. Do the Iraqi people want the U.S. and the British to stay? The infrequency of attacks on allied forces in northern and southern Iraq suggests that the local people there are either satisfied with — or at least not hostile to — the status quo. But what about the alleged center of resistance in Baghdad? A British YouGov poll taken there two weeks ago needs to be interpreted skeptically as Iain Murray pointed on NRO. But it suggests that most people in Baghdad favored the war, prefer some kind of democracy to the authoritarian alternatives, think their lives are likely get better as a result of Saddam’s ouster, and don’t want him back. Only five percent want the return of Saddam and only six percent support rule by Mullahs. Heavy-handed tactics might possibly alienate Iraqis throughout the country, but the superb and balanced report of my UPI colleague Pamela Hess from Najaf suggests the U.S. Marines there have developed very sensitive approaches to policing that win over most Iraqis and subtly undermine extremists. To oversimplify, the best guess is that most Iraqis want the U.S. to remain until a stable, democratic and generally acceptable government is securely in place — and then go to somewhere nearby from where it can keep an eye on things.
2. How formidable is the resistance? It consists largely of two groups: namely, the remnants of Saddam’s Baath party, and the non-Iraqi Islamist terrorists drawn to the country by the opportunity to fight the United States. Neither is very popular with Iraqis — their joint support peaks at 11 percent in the YouGov poll — and both groups are vulnerable to betrayal. Their power to disrupt rests on (a) money to hire people to attack U.S. troops and (b) the fear of the Iraqi people that the Baath party will one day return and punish those who cooperate with the United States. Their money is dwindling as U.S. intelligence uncovers their caches of gold and dollars. The population’s fear of them is gradually dissolving as more and more of the Baath regime’s leading figures are either captured or killed. And as that happens, more people are willing to help U. S. intelligence to capture the rest. Convincing most Iraqis that the U.S. is determined to stay until the Baath party is completely extirpated and a stable democratic polity established is now the key to defeating the resistance, which meanwhile is killing about one American soldier a day.
3. Will the American people think this cost worth paying? That is likely to depend on whether they believe these sacrifices are justified by a sufficiently important cause. For comparison’s sake, consider the Malayan “Emergency” that lasted 12 years from 1948 to 1960. In that struggle with communist guerrillas, the British lost more than 900 soldiers. What they gained was a stable independent democratic Malaya (later Malaysia) that was a strong Western ally in the Cold War and is now one of the most successful free-enterprise economies in Asia. Doubtless that is cold comfort to 900 families in Birmingham, Liverpool and Glasgow who lost a son 50 years ago. But a Malaya saved from communism — and a safer, freer, more prosperous Asia — were substantial geopolitical gains for which the British were prepared to take losses. Most people today, particularly Malaysians, think that sacrifice justified. Will American families think the achievement of a stable democratic Iraq and a wider Middle East peace under American auspices worth risking the lives of their own sons in a faraway land?
That is the nub of the matter. For if the United States shows it is prepared to take whatever losses are necessary to restore order, then Iraqis will increasingly resist the resistance and create an opening for the Iraqi democracy desired by the majority. That is not to argue that Iraqi democracy will necessarily succeed thereafter or that, if it does, its success will be rapid. Iraq is a contentious and divided society lacking many of the usual pre-conditions for democracy such as the concept of a loyal opposition. Nor is it to argue that the United States should act in a brutally “unilateralist” fashion — on the contrary, there is much to be gained by sharing the military burden with loyal allies such as the Poles and the British, by cautiously establishing quasi-representative Iraqi institutions and by “putting an Iraqi face” on government and in particular on security enforcement. America’s shrewd proconsul, Paul Bremer, is prudently doing just that. But if the United States falters, hesitates or loses its nerve, then ordinary Iraqis will despair, the resistance will be heartened, and the nation will descend into a needless quagmire of instability from which the United States and its allies will then have great difficulty extricating themselves. In all this there is a paradox: the clearer it is that the Americans will stay, the quicker they can safely leave.
Various interests, however, do not see it that way. The international community, the United Nations, the “humanitarian” nongovernmental organizations, those American allies that opposed the Second Gulf War, and the mainstream Western media all insist that the United States is failing in Iraq and that Washington needs to be rescued by the United Nations, the international community, its skeptical allies, the NGOs, etc. They cite the current state of Iraq to justify these claims but, as we have seen, the picture of Iraq painted by the Western media (with respectable exceptions such as Hess and the Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland) is darker than is really justified. And they do not acknowledge — or correct for — their own ideological interests that direct them toward pessimistic conclusions.
Those biases are manifold but three will suffice here. First, they have an interest in demonstrating that military interventions and peacekeeping can only succeed with the approval and support of international institutions — a direct interest in the case of NGOs and U.N. agencies, an intellectual interest in the case of the mainstream media institutions, e.g. the British Broadcasting Corp., and some European governments. Second, they wish to wipe out the failure of their own early predictions that the United States would face fierce resistance and get bogged down in a “Stalingrad” impasse in Baghdad by extending these predictions into the postwar period. Third, they reflect a general hostility to American power and a wish to confine it within rules laid down by unaccountable international bodies. And all three biases are but pale emanations of a deeper prejudice. As Mark Steyn has written: “At the BBC and Le Monde and the Sydney Morning Herald, anti-Americanism is the New Universal Theory: It explains everything; it’s the prism through which every event is viewed.” In this case, it’s the prism through which the situation in Iraq is viewed — and, more important, the prism through which the media presents Iraq for us to view.
In other words, we are at a moment like the Tet offensive. The actual situation in Iraq is unstable but improving, but the mainstream media has a vested intellectual interest in depicting it as a yawning quagmire. This time we had better make sure that, whatever decision we make, it is based on the reality on the ground and not on the prejudices of the messenger.
— John O’Sullivan is editor-in-chief of United Press International. This was originally written for UPI and is reprinted with permission. O’Sullivan can be reached through www.benadorassociates.com.