Politics & Policy

Analytical Autopilot

Looking for a Vietnam, media misses the real stories in Iraq.

It was a seven-year struggle against diehard indigenous guerrillas, a controversial war that helped bring down a Democratic president, a hard-fought jungle conflict in which both sides committed atrocities, and the sentiments of the domestic peace movement were echoed by disenchanted soldiers longing for nothing more than a ticket back to the world. Yeah, you guessed it: I’m referring to the Second Seminole War. Every day I watch the coverage of events and Iraq and pray that the United States has not gotten itself into another Florida.

O.K., so maybe the comparison is far-fetched, but it is as valid as the Vietnamization that is creeping over discussion of Iraq. It seems a media gospel that every conflict must be compared to Vietnam sooner or later, so anything that could prompt the analogy triggers a flashback to the ’60s. Forget that the size of the conflict, the global context, the weapons, doctrine, force structure, domestic context, terrain, motivation, and practically every other point of comparison are different. The key variable is the same–reporters looking for a storyline, a hook, something to say when they’ve run out of critiques. A Vietnam story is a form of analytical autopilot, usually negative, almost always misguided. Nevertheless, recent comparisons of the Ramadan bombings in Iraq to the Tet Offensive are strangely apt. Not just because the attacks also began on a holiday, but because they have engaged the media’s Tet-response mechanism. The terrorists know this (Osama bin Laden would habitually mention Vietnam as an example of doing things right), and seek to replicate the very conditions that turned Tet from a North Vietnamese rout to a Communist victory in the information domain.

The Vietnamization of the storyline kicked into high gear when the president stated that the recent rash of attacks in Iraq were a sign of desperation, which struck some as a kind of Johnson-era doublespeak. But the president’s statement recognizes a fact that is often overlooked when analyzing terrorist incidents–that terrorism is a weapon of the weak. If the terrorists could wage guerrilla war, conventional war, or anything more substantial, they would. If they are reduced to suicide car bombings and assassinations, they are on a downward spiral. Their strategic straits become more evident when you look at the current target groups:

1. The Iraqi police. The recent attacks on police stations in Baghdad were the most numerous in the latest wave, probably the most dramatic, and surely most emblematic of the frustrations being felt by the oppositionists. There are currently 93,000 Iraqis working in various parts of the country’s security infrastructure, and the number grows by a few thousand every week. 60,000 of them are police, and the terrorists have targeted them because they are doing what police do–maintaining order, watching neighborhoods, securing the safety of the Iraqi people. Crime rates in Iraq have decline dramatically in recent weeks. For any group seeking to promote instability for its own sake, the police are a natural “must kill” target.

2. The Iraqi civil administration. The terrorists have made several assassination attempts on various members of the new government in Iraq. The latest victim was deputy mayor of Baghdad Faris Abdul Razzaq al-Assam, who by all reports was a selfless young idealist committed to improving the lives of all the people of the city. He was gunned down while playing backgammon, after having returned from the international donor conference at which he received pledges of billions of dollars to bring needed improvements to his city, and the country generally. He was an Iraqi helping Iraqis, an effective charismatic spokesman, so naturally he had to go, from the terrorist perspective.

3. The Iraqi infrastructure. In August, terrorists attacked oil and water pipelines, power lines, and other elements of the country’s physical infrastructure. These types of attacks also are clearly geared towards making average Iraqis miserable and destroying confidence. But today electrical generation is already above prewar levels, and crude-oil production is 84 percent of its prewar peak. In addition, there are almost 19,000 Iraqis working in the facilities-protection service. So this is not an area in which the terrorists are making much of an impact.

4. The Red Cross. The ICRC has been supplying Iraqis with medical and other humanitarian aid for two decades. The guards outside the bombed Red Cross building were unarmed, and the ICRC had no official links to the U.S. forces. This is one of the few international organizations whose inviolability from physical attack is explicitly ensured by treaty. Assaults against this or any humanitarian organization can by definition only hurt people in need. (And add to that the fact that most of the people who died in this attack were innocent bystanders.) Yet, the terrorists bombed them, to international condemnation. It is noteworthy that this strike was even denounced by Syria, a country that tends not to protest spontaneous combustion in pursuit of radical causes.

5. The U.N. The U.N. is now pulling most of its people out of Baghdad, but is also organizing a new wave of humanitarian missions and other assistance under the auspices of the recent Security Council Resolution 1511. I wrote last August about the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Iraq, and nothing that has happened since has contradicted my thesis that the terrorists are fundamentally at war with civilization.

6. The Coalition Partners. Terrorists have attacked the Jordanian and Turkish embassies, and killed Ukrainians troops working with Polish forces in southern Iraq. Their message is simple: Anyone involved in the war is a legitimate target. But as I have noted before, the result of these kinds of attacks is not to cause the countries being targeted to fold up, but rather to redouble their efforts to stamp out the terrorist threat.

It is important to note that the attacks are mostly anonymous. There is no overt attempt to rally the Iraqi people to a specific cause, other than the implicit one of not building the new Iraq. The movement is not just anti-American; it is opposed to anyone who seeks progress, democracy, civilization, and freedom. At base, the terrorists promote chaos, because a stable, safe Iraq will have no use for their extremist ideology. No credible observer asserts that the terror attacks are being committed as an expression of some kind of popular expression of discontent. We aren’t seeing mass riots, demonstrations, strikes, or any other gestures of support. In fact the average Iraqi is saddened and outraged.

I am a little skeptical of the notion that the majority of the perpetrators are “diehard Baathists.” I’ve never seen a lot of the Bruce Willis spirit in that crowd. If they’re so hardcore, where were they last spring when their police state was being taken apart in record time? The al Qaeda link is more compelling. The pro-bin Laden Arabic press is full of stories about Iraq being the seat of the terror war, and inviting foreign Mujahedeen to join in. One commentator called it “the most important base for the resistance and a safe haven for all the extremist Islamic groups.” (Note that the writer goes on to say that fighting in Iraq will restore America’s Vietnam complex.) The October 18 al Qaeda statement (which mentioned Vietnam too) called Iraq the “first line of defense” of the cause, and singled out the members of the new government for termination with extreme prejudice. And the terrorist presence isn’t a recent development. A report Monday in the new Baghdad newspaper Al-Yawm al-Akhir stated that ten days before the war began in March, al Qaeda representatives had worked out a plan with Iraqi forces to coordinate combat activities. The report, quoting “a high-ranking Iraqi officer” who oversaw terrorist training, said that al Qaeda fighters participated in the defenses of Saddam airport and the Baghdad suburbs. American media reports had already noted the presence of masses of foreign Mujahedeen during major combat operations.

The recent round of attacks has not particularly served the cause of the terrorists. They have not dampened the resolve of the United States or the international community. They have not caused the Iraqi people to question the value of building a stable and prosperous future. They have only demonstrated their own ruthlessness in pursuit of an extremist ideological agenda, to which anyone in Iraq can potentially fall victim. They are more than willing to destroy the country in order to save it. And does anyone really think the terrorists are winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people?

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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