Some soldiers are killed in pitched battles, some are murdered in public by brazen assassins. As combat deaths in Iraq have edged over 30 since April, it has become clear that the war did not end there when Saddam Hussein’s statue fell.
Wars often outlast their supposed endpoints. Grant and Lee met in a burst of magnanimity at Appomattox, but lynching, banditry, and other violence sputtered on for years; one of the casualties was President Lincoln, slain by a Confederate agent. How in the present case does the United States protect its soldiers, its interests, and the future of Iraq?
One great problem is restoring the nation’s infrastructure. Washington underestimated the difficulties this would pose. With its oil wealth and its secularist veneer, Iraq had the face of a modern nation. But war, embargo, greed, and mismanagement had rotted it from within. As Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, told Time, “Saddam took 35 years to run the place down, and it’s not going to take 35 days to fix it. People need to be patient. And I know that’s hard when the temperature’s 124 and the electricity goes off. But that’s the message, and that’s the only message there is.”
Partly because of its own self-restrained battle tactics, the coalition confronts a sullen and still-hopeful enemy. Saddam’s loyalists expect the return of their malign Bonnie Prince Charlie, encouraged by his recent supposed taped message to them. A corpse or three of Saddam and his sons would be most welcome. The diehards appear to be composed of Baathist minions, members of the formerly favored Sunni minority, criminals, and foreign jihadists. One reason for continuing casualties has been that American troops are seeking the bad guys out, patrolling Baghdad’s streets and sweeping the so-called “Sunni triangle” northwest of the capital.
The diehards are targeting the Iraqi people as well as coalition troops. Iraqis working to restore the electrical grid have been murdered; seven Iraqi police cadets were killed by a bomb. The enemy chose its victims well. One of the keys to success in ensuring domestic tranquility is handing off the job to those who will most benefit by it. In the blunt language of “The Small Wars Manual,” written by Marine officers in the 1930s and exhumed by author Max Boot, “native troops, supported by marines, [should be] increasingly employed as early as practicable in order that these native agencies may assume their proper responsibility for restoring law and order in their own country.” The sooner Iraq moves from an American occupation, to an American occupation assisted by Iraqis, to an Iraqi regime bolstered by Americans, the better.
The ultimate target audience for enemy violence is the American public. President Bush’s willingness to “bring . . . on” enemy attacks was not macho bluster, but an expression of American determination. “Make no mistake about it,” Bush continued, ” — and the enemy should [not] make any mistake about it — we will deal with them harshly if they continue to try to bring harm to the Iraqi people.” A few well-selected words were, predictably, seized by his Democratic opponents. But a president should know that his words will be distorted, and therefore speak more tersely. Bush should say, as he has been saying all along, that the fight will be hard, and that the alternative to action is to leave ourselves vulnerable to the machinations of terrorists and their patrons. The American people understand that 9/11 marked an era in our national life. Bush must deal with them boldly and bluntly.
As it did during the push to Baghdad, the United States has been showing flexibility in Iraq. This is bad, and good. It’s bad because it shows that initial assumptions were mistaken. It’s good because it shows that Washington is able to learn and react. Flexibility of execution; firmness of purpose.