EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial appears in the (forthcoming) May 31, 2004, issue of National Review.
As damaging as the pictures of abuse at Abu Ghraib have been to our cause in Iraq, we suspect that the pictures of thugs in Fallujah celebrating their supposed victory over U.S. Marines have done more damage. A cardinal principle of the occupation should be that we mean what we say. We said, in blunt and even swaggering terms, that we would clean out Fallujah. Then we pulled up short, badly undermining our credibility. The Fallujah deal may well encourage other violent factions to ensconce themselves in urban areas and to defy the U.S. If our resolve in Iraq isn’t absolutely beyond question, the country’s benign forces will avoid extending themselves to help us and will instead keep their heads down, trying to limit their exposure against the day we pull out.
Abu Ghraib and Fallujah have led to a new, more intense round of intraconservative finger-pointing over “who lost Iraq.” Neoconservatives especially blame Don Rumsfeld for not authorizing enough troops for Iraq. Rumsfeld partisans blame the State Department for blocking Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress from assuming authority in Iraq. There is some merit in each argument, and in still other proffered explanations for our problems in Iraq. But the bottom line, one that neoconservatives in particular are loath to admit, is that the nation-building project in Iraq has proven much more difficult than expected. We underestimated the brokenness of Iraqi society and its resistance to being fixed by us. No one said it would be easy, but neither did anyone say it would be this hard, in this particular way. Certainly none of us who supported the war did. It is unlikely that anything–more troops, Chalabi, whatever–would have been a magic bullet.
But nothing going on in Iraq is quite as alarming as the panic of our political class about it. We have been there a year, really no time at all. Local elections have been held, a free and vigorous press has been established, and the infrastructure has been greatly improved. This is not nothing. There are still encouraging signs on the ground. Protests against Moqtada al-Sadr in the south have been growing, demonstrating that most Shiites reject his radicalism and oppose Iranian influence in the country. Two issues ago, NR argued that we needed to lower expectations in Iraq–to accept that a truly liberal democracy is not in the offing, at least not anytime soon. But since then expectations have plummeted beyond all reason. Even stalwart hawks such as Andrew Sullivan are in a panic. The emerging conventional wisdom is that Iraq is an unrecoverable disaster. Make no mistake: Iraq still may become that, but we need to muster all our resources and shrewdness to try to avoid it.
The administration has rightly decided to keep troop levels at 135,000 rather than draw them down. Message: We won’t cut and run. Every effort must be made to crush the insurgency. Fallujah was a missed opportunity that cannot be repeated. Meanwhile, the political process is of the utmost importance. The ability of the U.S. to guide political developments is waning as tolerance for the occupation declines. Hence our turn to U.N. representative Lakhdar Brahimi. He provides a useful cushion between us and the new interim government scheduled to take power on June 30. There are limits, however, to the legitimacy that any government picked by us or the U.N. can achieve. A transition plan that has already been serially readjusted may need readjusting again. We should attempt, as soon as logistically possible, to create a government that is at least crudely representative, whether through a caucus system to form some sort of meaningful representative assembly, or through makeshift elections before conditions are ideal for them (because they may not be ideal for a long time).
Throughout Bush’s presidency there have been inflection points when his administration seemed adrift and about to be torn asunder by its divisions. At these moments, Bush has always seized the initiative. This must be one of them. He has to energetically defend the Iraq war at home and abroad, give the military and the rebuilding process the massive resources they need, and correct the listlessness of his policy on the ground. America’s position in the world for years to come depends on it, as does his presidency.