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The only way to win in Iraq.

When the Chicken Littles were saying the sky is falling before the war in Iraq, I was in the “don’t worry” school. But now that the doomsayers are hoping that everyone forgets their predictions of a difficult war, it’s I who am beginning to worry.

My worry is not that the postwar focus will be to pressure Israel to make a deal with a largely unreformed Palestinian Authority. There is such a danger but, roughly speaking, Israel and the U.S. are agreed that the days of talking and fighting are over: Either the Palestinians deliver against terrorism or there will be no real negotiations or Israeli concessions.

#ad#My concern is more immediate: that the U.S. will discover too late that it is in a race with Iran and Syria over which will be destabilized first their own regimes or the post-Saddam order the U.S. is trying to create in Iraq.

Iran and Syria may not know much about football, but they do seem to have absorbed what Americans are supposed to have learned from that game that the best defense is a good offense. Iran is so far outspending and out-hustling the U.S. within the Iraqi Shiite majority.

Last Wednesday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, “I want to stress that people should not overinterpret the capability of the Shia Iranians to influence the Shia Iraqis.” Not only is he right, but the influence could flow the other direction: rather than Iranian-exported hatred infecting Iraq, pro-American Iraqi Shiism could help destabilize Iran.

But for that to happen, the U.S. has to flex some old and unused muscles, not of military might but of old-fashioned political action. As of this writing, the Iraq-Iran border has been left largely open to Iranian penetration. Top Iraqi Shiite clerics who want to be aligned with the U.S. have apparently not been contacted, let alone wooed and supported, by the White House, State Department, or by retired general Jay Garner’s new administration.

In its military campaign, the U.S. accomplished the unprecedented: the destruction of a regime while preserving most of the national infrastructure, killing a minimum number of Iraqi civilians, and losing a minimum number of its own soldiers. Now the U.S. seems to be trying the equivalent political feat: to win the postwar struggle for Iraq’s future with the lightest possible touch, without taking sides, and saying at every moment how eager it is to leave.

While touring Kurdish areas last week, Garner said that, “The majority of people realize we are only going to stay here long enough to start a democratic government for them. We’re only going to stay here long enough to get their economy going.” Once that is grasped, according to Garner, “In a very short order you’ll see a change in the attitudes and the will of the people themselves.” Garner is talking as if his main audience were Iranian-backed Shiite fundamentalists and European Bush-bashers, neither of which wanted the war in the first place.

In reality, America’s challenge is not to convince Iraqis that it will leave quickly enough, but that it will not abandon them to outside infiltrators. Iraqi Shiite leaders now have to bet on who will be ahead over the longer-term Americans who come and go, or Iran, which is vigorously supporting its allies and will always be there? It is perhaps understandable that the U.S. is at pains to show that it is not imposing its will. But the outcome of the current more-subtle struggle should be considered integral to the military campaign to oust Saddam. American objectives will not have been fulfilled if it is not safe to be a pro-American Shiite leader in Iraq, because Iran has been given a free hand to fund, arm, and organize its allies.

Regime change, after all, comes in many shapes and sizes. Over a decade ago, the West was spoiled by the seemingly effortless revolutions in central Europe, as each regime fell like ripe fruit in tight succession. This is the ideal model for regime change, but it was not possible in Iraq, where Saddam’s control was so tight that people were afraid to rise up even with American marines surrounding their cities.

We should not be confused by recent history into thinking that, between spontaneous people power at one extreme and the 82nd Airborne at the other, there are no other alternatives. In between, there is the detail-laden, patience-trying task of fomenting change from within dictatorial regimes.

The Iranian revolution calcified long ago in Iran, and is vulnerable to democratic revolutionaries who now seek to topple it. The U.S. must now draw upon its own revolutionary tradition, both to prevent Iran and Syria from hijacking the peace in Iraq, and to free the peoples living under those regimes.

It is ironic that the Iranian regime, as sclerotic as it is, seems to understand better than America that there is no equilibrium between revolutionary Islamism and revolutionary democracy. One will advance at the expense of the other.

The deck is stacked in America’s favor. Iraqis, including the Shiites, don’t want to be in Iran’s orbit, much less live under a new Islamic dictatorship. Syrians would be as happy to be rid of their Baathist regime as were Iraqis. But the people cannot free themselves without help.

They need simple things, such as for dissidents to be invited to the White House, for U.S. President George W. Bush to highlight the abuses of their regimes, including Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. High-level meetings should end, and concerted effort to increase the economic isolation of both regimes should begin. Opposition radio stations should be amply funded.

The liberation of Iraq was a great and necessary example of America’s will and power. But, unlike in Afghanistan, the Iraqis were largely bystanders in the fighting. The next regime changes will be led by peoples, not armies. If America is to win the peace in Iraq and the next battles elsewhere, it must engage on behalf of its friends and potential friends by tapping into its own revolutionary roots.

Saul Singer is editorial-page editor of the Jerusalem Post. This was originally written for the Jerusalem Post and is reprinted with permission.

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