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The Strategic Optimist
A necessary return to first principles.


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The setting for Monday night’s presidential address was symbolic, and intentionally so. Given the topic, the five-point plan for the full transfer of sovereignty in Iraq, the venue could have been the State Department, the U.N., or the International Peace Academy. But the president chose the Army War College, an institution whose mission is “to prepare selected military, civilian, and international leaders for the responsibilities of strategic leadership.” The strategic purpose of the war in Iraq frequently gets lost in the ad hoc, reactive, media-driven public debate. The strategic focus is the opposite of the body-count fixation of the radical Left, and the antidote to the myopic criticism of those who oppose the conduct of the war but have no realistic alternatives to offer. However, given the importance of the impending transfer of power, it was necessary to return to first principles. The president lifted the discussion to the level of strategy in order to create clarity.

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Just to recap, before March 2003, Saddam Hussein’s regime posed four strategic challenges to the United States: pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, support for international terrorism, aggression against its neighbors, and tyranny at home. Operation Iraqi Freedom brought down Saddam’s regime and resolved these issues. The new strategic challenge in Iraq is creating the necessary stability in order for the Iraqi people to erect a sustainable, liberal political system. Iraq remains the central front of the war on terrorism, but the nature of the campaign has changed. Previously Iraq was a safe haven for terrorists; today it is an active battleground in which the enemy seeks to confront U.S. armed forces. The same al Qaeda strategy that concluded it was a good idea to launch dramatic, mass-casualty attacks on the U.S. homeland, now encourages radicals from all parts of the world to congregate in Iraq. In so doing the enemy fighters sacrifice their primary advantage–concealment–making them readily available to become casualties. The more that go there to fight our forces, the fewer will survive to attack us elsewhere. One important additional aspect of the regional strategy that the president did not address is the role of neighboring states, chiefly Iran and Syria, in contributing to the violence in Iraq. Neither regime particularly wants to see the democratic experiment succeed, and both are reportedly giving monetary and other support to the terrorists. Presumably steps are being taken to interdict this support and to dissuade these countries from continuing to sponsor terrorism, but this threat will have to be ended one way or another for Iraq’s democracy to flourish.

President Bush has consistently described the war as a clash of two visions of human society. Which would one choose, he asks, if free to do so? The enemy has been busy making their case. They have assassinated political leaders like Izzadine Saleem and Aquila al-Hashimi, who dedicated themselves to the peaceful development of their country. They have killed many other Muslims too, such as policemen seeking to protect Iraq’s citizens, and people on the street who had the misfortune of being nearby when terrorists set off explosives. They have used mosques and holy sites as weapons depots and sniper platforms. Shiite extremist Muqtada al-Sadr’s so-called “Mahdi Army” has bullied, looted, raped, and plundered in the areas under its control. Though these and other thugs dominate the news coverage, they are not legitimate representatives of the Iraqi people, nor do they reflect the views of the majority of citizens of that country. Opinion polls consistently show that the majority of Iraqis are happy to be free, and that they want Coalition forces to remain to guarantee their security. As the president noted, to our great advantage, “they prefer lives of freedom to lives of fear.”

President Bush expressed the optimism of the liberal vision for Iraq, promoting free governance, free-market prosperity, education, freedom of expression and worship, equality for women and minorities, due process, and the rule of law. He noted that Iraqis are already practicing self-government–town councils formed in cities and villages across Iraq as soon as the Baathist administrators fled, a spontaneous expression of free people reclaiming their inalienable rights to self-rule. This is the type of story that has been overlooked by a press fascinated with blood letting, but these local governments, if they are nurtured in a Federal system and not crushed under a centralized bureaucracy, will be the building blocks for the new Iraqi civil society.

The five-point plan the president outlined is logical and self-explanatory, and the details will be hammered out as the political process evolves. Yet, the proposal came under immediate attack. Listening to the critical responses to the speech one was struck by their deep, empty pessimism. The president’s critics have no counter proposals, no suggestions for improving the situation in Iraq, only hypothetical disaster scenarios and relentless negativity. They seem to delight in subtly (and sometimes not so) mocking the president’s idealism, offering instead their own fashionable cynicism, the sophisticated lethargy of those who claim to be the successors to the New Frontier. But one could see from President Bush’s spirited delivery that he believes what he says. It may be considered unsophisticated to engage in hopefulness, but it helps us maintain our focus and pursue the strategic objectives of the war. The president’s stance is not false optimism or focus-group-produced triangulation delivered with a smirk–it is honest, and those who oppose the president’s policies should, if they were up to it, at least give him credit for his beliefs.

There was an evocative line near the beginning of the speech, when President Bush drew a contrast between the competing visions: The terrorists “can incite men to murder and suicide, but they cannot inspire men to live, and hope.” This encapsulates the root distinction between our side and enemies of freedom in clear, objective terms. Death is their way of life. This is a contradiction; it cannot endure. We promote life, in all its complexity, diversity, and potential. Imagine a positive outcome–not even the best case, just a very good one–a free, democratic Iraq; a strategic ally; a market for goods and a source for resources; an inspiration to others in the region who will see freedom and prosperity and wonder why their leaders deny it to them. This may be difficult to achieve but it is by no means impossible. It is much better than the alternative. It would be wonderful if we had no challenges, yet as the president said, “this is the world as we find it.” Fortunately, we do not have to accept the world as it is.



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