Incredibly, we are on the verge of repeating the terrible mistake we made at the end of the first Gulf War.
At the end of Gulf War I, the Iraqi occupiers had been routed from Kuwait, the road to Baghdad was wide open, the northern Kurds and southern Shiites were ready to overthrow Saddam’s murderous dictatorship, Saddam had sent his family abroad and was preparing his own escape, and the entire Arab world awaited the imposition of an American imperium. Had they been in the Americans’ position, they would have reshaped the region in accordance with their own interests, and they expected us to do the same.
Above all, they expected us to continue to Baghdad, to bring down Saddam’s regime, and to install a government of our own liking. Contrary to legend, many of the Arab governments wanted us to do just that. Indeed, according to persons in a position to know, the Saudis themselves encouraged us to see the war through to a total victory that would have given us enormous leverage over future events, and not only in Iraq. For example, there was a possibility of eliminating the radical PLO (which had fully supported Saddam) from its dominant position, bringing a new generation of Palestinians to the bargaining table, and creating a Palestinian State that would live in real peace with Israel.
Instead, we stopped on a dime, settled for an inconclusive ceasefire, brought our troops home, and abandoned the Kurds and Shiites to Saddam’s butchers. I called it “Desert Shame” and it laid the groundwork for the disastrous decade that followed. Having pressured the Saudis to cut off their traditional funding of the PLO, we soon implored them to resume it. The message spread throughout the region. Arafat regained his strength, those Palestinians who wanted real peace were enfeebled, and terrorism was revived. Having granted Saddam a stay of execution, we stood by as he reestablished his tyranny, crushed any remnants of the opposition, resumed support of the terror network, and reinstituted his weapons programs. We soon betrayed the Iraqi opposition forces in the north (the first of many betrayals of the several groups that compose the Iraqi National Congress), sending an unmistakable message to the region: The United States was not prepared to assert its values and its will in the Middle East.
Desert Shame was a pyrrhic triumph of legalistic technicality and diplomatic guile over the relentless pursuit of our national goals. The legalism was real enough, albeit only to those who wished to be prevented from achieving total victory: we had assembled a coalition to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and we felt obliged to stop at the borders of Iraq, even though many of our coalition partners encouraged us to continue.
The wishful thinking was of a sort that has continued to undermine our mission ever since: We convinced ourselves that there was no need to risk American lives or treasure, since the locals would do the job by themselves. This dovetailed neatly with the legalistic and diplomatic self-delusion, leading us to act as if the combination of public diplomacy (expressing our hope that the Kurds and Shiites would overthrow Saddam) and the political consequences of our military victory would produce the desired result without forcing us to dirty our hands in further actions, or tie us down in a feared Iraqi quagmire.
The current situation is eerily reminiscent of Desert Shame, even though many of the self-imposed restraints do not exist. Our mission is not merely “regime change” in Baghdad, it is to win the war against the terror masters in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Like Afghanistan, Iraq was only one battle in that war. It was folly to believe — as so many now confess they did believe — that we could deal with Iraq alone, and then work out a strategy for the others. As in 1991, many of our leaders expected that the spectacle of our victory in Iraq would have an inevitable ripple effect throughout the region, and that the Iranian people (for starters) would fulfill their oft-demonstrated dream of overthrowing the mullahs in favor of a democratic system.
Life is not often like that. If we want a free Iran and a free Syria — and we must, if we really want to win the war against terror — we will have to fight for it. Not militarily, in these cases, but certainly politically. Even as we prepared to invade Iraq, the Iranian and Syrian dictators increased their bloody repression, desperately trying to stave off their own day of reckoning. And, of course, the Iranians sent contradictory messages, alternately cursing us as agents of the devil, only to turn around and sing sweet songs of “better relations” even as they pursued a nuclear program that is on the verge of fulfillment (Revolutionary Guards officers were recently informed that a nuclear test is in the works later this summer).
Those who recently declared themselves surprised at the vigor of the Syrian/Iranian operations against us inside Iraq should have realized that the dictators of Damascus and Tehran so dreaded an American victory in Iraq, that they were compelled to come after us there. As Bashar Assad proclaimed in a marvelously candid interview shortly after the onset of the Iraq war, their model was Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s: a combination of terrorism and religious fanaticism to drive us out.
As in 1991, if we fail to pursue our maximum interests we risk defeat and humiliation. If the Iranians succeed in creating a rabid Islamic Republic in Iraq, we may be even worse off than we were with Saddam, and the various leaders of the terror network, from bin Laden to Mughniyah, from Zarkawi to Zawahiri, will gain new followers and resume their jihad with new fervor.
It is therefore disconcerting and discouraging to see the National Security Council’s top man in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, sneaking off to secret meetings with representatives of the Iranian regime, and to see Secretary of State Powell enthusiastically contemplating a trip to Damascus. There is nothing to be gained from talking to the mullahs. They are declared enemies of everything we hold precious, and they are only trying to buy time, believing that once they have the atomic bomb we will be forever blocked from challenging them. And if the State Department is so desperate to talk to Assad, then make him swim the Atlantic and crawl to Washington to beg for survival. A Powell trip to Damascus will send a dangerous message to the region. By going there instead of summoning them, we will show weakness. And all will remember that, on the verge of a glorious victory in 1991, the same man called upon this president’s father to stop short, turn around, and leave the forces of freedom at the mercy of the tyrants.
To be sure, George W. Bush is very different from his father. He does not sneer at “the vision thing,” and he has spoken eloquently of the need for victory and of the danger of half measures. His instincts are as good as any president in memory. But time is very short, and he has been stalled before, first by the cunning Saudi “peace plan,” and then by the long diplomatic ritual dance that inevitably led us into a blind alley at the United Nations. He cannot now permit himself to be drawn into a phantasmagorical “peace process” with the Syrians or into “private diplomacy” with the mullahs. He must insist that we take the battle to the terror masters, extend freedom throughout the region, and thereby win the war.
— Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. Ledeen, Resident Scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute, can be reached through Benador Associates.