It is fitting, as the nation memorializes World War II–and those lost in the course of it and other terrible conflicts–that our recollections bring focus and insight into the present struggle for Iraq.
We’ve grown so accustomed to talking about “the war in Iraq” that many Americans no longer understand a central characteristic of this fight: It is but one front in a far larger global conflict.
This misunderstanding contributes materially to the demoralization of the public. Endless disclosures of prison abuse, tales of misplaced faith in Iraqi con-men-turned-Iranian agents, and continued bloodletting in various Iraqi locales have given rise to a sense of nationwide turmoil and insecurity. If one thinks of the war in Iraq in the same way one thinks of, say, the Vietnam or Korean wars, the same option adopted in those cases–terminating hostilities and bringing home most, if not all, the troops–seems available.
A more appropriate way to think of the present conflict, however, is as the battle of Iraq, as in World War II’s Battle of Britain–a vast fight to the death that shaped the course of the larger global struggle. Had the British been overrun by Nazi invaders after December 7, 1941, the larger war would not have ended nor, in all likelihood, would its ultimate outcome have been altered. But achieving the complete destruction and unconditional surrender of the Axis powers would have been much more difficult, protracted, and costly in lives and treasure.
Unfortunately, we need to contemplate this parallel because we are, today, facing the distinct possibility of defeat in the battle of Iraq.
To be sure, such a defeat is not imminent in the military sense. Notwithstanding all the talk about insufficient numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq, the Coalition’s resources have proven ample to establish and maintain security in nearly all of the country. There are important exceptions, but thanks to continued popular support for our troops’ effort to consolidate the liberation, the situation in strictly military terms can better be described as an incomplete success than as an impending defeat.
Yet Americans here are being fed a steady diet of bloody instances of insecurity: a trickle of U.S. servicemen and women killed or maimed in combat; American contractors, aid workers, and other civilians brutally attacked; Iraqi police, politicians, and secretaries blown up. Such losses conjure up on the homefront a sense of mayhem and endless military setbacks that is sapping political support for the war effort. That sentiment is only exacerbated by much-publicized expressions of ingratitude by some Iraqis angry that their country may be freer but feels less safe and less infrastructurally advanced than it was under the ancien regime.
These impressions have caused what appears to be plummeting public confidence in the president and his team here at home. And regrettably, the administration and the U.S.-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority have acted–principally, it seems, out of a desire to reverse declining poll numbers here–in ways that are increasingly sapping the Iraqi people’s confidence in us.
These include the setting of an arbitrary date for handing over sovereignty to Iraqis, ready or not; the lateral to the U.N. and its pan-Arabist, Sunni envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, to dictate Iraq’s future government; the volte face on de-Baathification, coincident with one of Saddam’s generals being allowed to take over Fallujah (in his old uniform, no less); the highly publicized trashing of America’s best friends in Iraq, Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress; and the allowing of Iranian-backed cleric Moktada al-Sadr to live to fight another day.
Such steps convey to Iraqis that we are once again in the process of abandoning them. This perception can only translate into far less support for our forces and efforts and more support for, or at least acquiescence toward, freedom’s enemies in Iraq.
Accumulating evidence of such changes on the ground will also further erode American popular support for staying the course in Iraq. American officials have already announced that we will pull our troops out if the transitional government being forged in Lakhdar Brahimi’s image asks us to go. In truth, that decision may be taken even before we are asked–especially if the people of this country conclude that we are not wanted in Iraq and that, by walking away from it, we can end a needless, thankless expenditure of lives and taxpayer dollars.
But that’s the rub. Losing the battle of Iraq will not end the costs of fighting America’s terrorist foes. If anything, the emboldening of our enemies that will attend an ignominious retreat will ensure that the costs of waging the rest of the war will be vastly greater, not only for the present generation but for our children and grandchildren.
In short, we have a choice. Intensify and make more effective our campaign to secure freedom in Iraq–by robust military as well as political measures–in which case we will likely succeed there. Or persist in our present course, signaling our lack of resolve and incipient collapse, and make inevitable our departure under fire.
Whichever choice we make, the war against Islamist terror will continue. It is just that, if we choose the latter, it is certain that we will confront it for a longer time and there will be many more civilians in this country whose loss we will be obliged to recall in the course of future Memorial Days.
–Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is President of the Center for Security Policy and an NRO contributing editor.