“It is easy to be against the war now,” boasts Howard Dean, as he goes on to describe Iraq as a hopeless quagmire. We are reminded daily not of the birth of the first consensual government in the history of the Arab world, but only that nine months after the military defeat of the Baathists, there is still resistance to the American reconstruction; and that the number of American soldiers, killed in major combat operations and afterward, has now surpassed 500.
Things in the Middle East are hard precisely because the stakes there are gargantuan. But so are the rewards: The sanctuaries and patrons of murderers, suicide bombers, and terrorists are shrinking with the destruction of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. Autocracies like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria are terrified of consensual government in Iraq precisely because they are aware of its implications for their own deprived citizens.
Meanwhile millions–from Libya and Pakistan to North Korea and Iran–watch intently. They wonder whether this new United States is about to run out of gas and return to the old appeasement of the last twenty years, when crafting nukes on the sly, blowing up Americans, and terrorizing innocents earned (at the worst) a televised remonstration expressing “concern” and “disappointment.” On the other hand, wonder the world’s opportunists, is this new–and often unpredictable–United States going to completely change the rules of engagement, to prevent the conditions that would lead to another September 11?
From our end, if we examine the situation in Iraq rationally, we can see that much is going well for us, and we have a variety of cards yet to play. The enemy die-hards count on killing enough Americans and causing enough disruptions that everyday Iraqis will rejoice upon seeing at least some Arabs defeat the new Crusaders. What they don’t count on is that once the Americans have left, everyday Iraqis don’t want them–the terrorists–to take over and recreate the Bekka Valley.
In addition, the Baathists and Islamicists–a fraction of the Iraq population–sense that Americans despise ingratitude. They trust that at some point we will shrug and say, “If these people won’t fight to protect the freedom we gave them, then screw them, bring everyone home, and let these tribal folk slaughter each other the way they have always done.”
For the Islamicists’ muddled vision of some theocratic caliphate run on Dark-Age principles to succeed, they must count on killing Americans and frightening Iraqis into inaction while the general quality of life erodes. Given the reputation of American largesse and know-how, our task is not simply to make Iraq no worse than it was under Saddam Hussein, but to greatly improve it, and to do so immediately. This makes things easier for the terrorists: They don’t have to ruin the country, just make it chaotic enough to tarnish the image of an otherwise perfectionistic United States falling through on its promises of a better Iraq.
To this end, they ask impoverished fathers to sacrifice their children to blow up Americans. After all, for a mere life and a cheap RPG, he can do much more than take out a half-million-dollar vehicle with its degreed driver: He can send a message to the U.S., saying that killer-terrorists can be far more evil than America can be good. And while the terrorists snipe, mine, and murder, they seek an international pass as the “invaded,” who merely wish to remove the “occupier” from their “home soil”–a corny rallying cry to be sure, but hackneyed enough for the cynical Europeans to accept it as a good reason to stay out of Iraq and let the Americans be smeared as imperialists for bringing democracy to the oppressed.
This is classic asymmetrical warfare, and we can handle it with the current strategies employed in such conflict. First, by training Iraqi police and militias and putting them into harm’s way, Iraqis sooner or later are going to turn on those–often non-Iraqis –who kill their own. To that end, the more we can change our forces from highly observable armored divisions into lighter counterinsurgency teams, the less visible and vulnerable our own troops will be. These transformations are, at last, underway.
We must put more ostensible political responsibility even more rapidly into the hands of Iraqis–from letting them conduct their own press conferences to creating entirely autonomous local governments. Only then will the explosion of a refinery or school bus rightly be a blow to the Iraqi, rather than to the American occupational, future. The problem is not “Iraq”–two-thirds of the country is progressing well–but a particular area of Sunni and Saddamite Iraq, much of which was never really conquered during the actual shooting war.
No one welcomes the Shiites demonstrating and offering threats. Yet if a method can be found for direct elections, coupled with constitutional protections of minority rights, such populism is not necessarily fatal to our cause. Indeed, part of our predicament in Iraq has been our quest for utopian perfection, or the idea that a few modern-day Jeffersons and Madisons need be present to craft a suitable constitution. Success in Iraq cannot be measured by how much it resembles the Connecticut countryside next month, but instead by whether–in two or three years–it is a country that no longer invades others, promotes terrorists, kills its own citizens, and uses petrol dollars to acquire a strategic arsenal to threaten the West.
To this end, we can remind the Iraqi nation that all three of its constituencies–the Kurds, the Sunnis, and the Shiite majority–have responsibilities to prevent one another from resurrecting tyranny. If the Sunnis wish to kill and abet killing, then they can be advised that de facto trisection will be their ultimate dividend, leaving them with little oil, without American peacekeepers, and bereft of reconstruction capital–and with many terrorists in their midst, and strong opponents to their north and south.
In turn, despite the dubious presence of Iranian clerics inside Iraq, Iran is–by negative example–of value to us. The Iraqi Shiites may holler about creating a religious paradise on earth, but we can point to the mullocratic chaos across the border and remind them where their rhetoric leads. The Kurds–who time and again have proven themselves the most supportive of American efforts–know that Turkey will not tolerate an independent Kurdistan on its borders. All three constituencies, then, have very real limitations on their political options–unless they desire a civil war, an intervention by Turkey, or the abandonment by and enmity of the United States.
Just because we are spending billions and are tied down in Afghanistan and Iraq does not mean that we must remain complacent with Syria and Iran. Each problem has its own unique solutions. If the two countries continue to aid and abet the insurrectionists, then we, in turn, can promote and fund dissident groups, isolate them diplomatically, and as a last resort contemplate military options that do not involve either invasion or occupation. Indeed, precisely because Syria and Iran see our difficulty in Iraq as being in their own interests, we must find creative ways to remind them that the killing of Americans and the destabilization of Iraq would be, ultimately, their own worst nightmare.
Perhaps both rogue states are beginning to grasp the new reality of the last two years: The United States no longer believes that every instance of the use of force is wrong, but in fact accepts that action is more than justified to end an autocratic regime with a history of frightening arsenals, subsidized terrorism, and a record of harming the interests of the United States. Remember that Musharraf’s sudden investigation of Pakistani nuclear scientists, Libya’s unexpected admission of nuclear proliferation, the removal of troops from Saudi Arabia, the growing Saudi dissident movements, and renewed Iranian unrest did not happen in a vacuum–and will cease the moment we return to the old way of appeasement and neglect.
Finally, there is a rarely discussed moral question here. Take September 11 away and the United States would never–despite the conspiracists’ theories of pre-9/11 mediation–have gone into either Afghanistan or Iraq. Both reactive military campaigns were waged humanely to minimize civilian casualties, often at risk to American military lives. The defeated were odious; their oppressed deserved to have been freed, and their nations returned from the graveyard to the family of nations.
For all the rhetoric about American corporate profiteering–the “Afghanistan pipeline,” the Halliburton bonanza, the carving up of the Iraqi petroleum pie–the ultimate cost of restoring the two countries will be enormous, yet justifiable not in economic advantages, but in both national-security interests and, yes, moral terms. This is as it should be, since we Americans recently have had a prior relationship with both the Afghan and Iraqi nations. Unlike the British or Russians, we have never attempted to colonize them, but we are nevertheless obligated to set things right since, at critical times when we had the ability to offer aid, we chose isolationism and retreat–and thousands died as a consequence.
If it was wrong and cynical to have left the Afghans to the mercy of once useful Islamic fundamentalists after the expulsion of the Soviets in the 1980s, it is right and humane now to stay and help after defeating those who further ruined Afghanistan.
If it was calculating and shortsighted not to have helped the Kurds and Shiites after the conclusion of the Gulf War in 1991, it is moral and visionary now to rectify that lapse and invest our most precious resources to set the ledger straight with them both.
Arguments against our efforts have already evolved precisely because of the moral nature of our enterprise. Two years ago, American leftists and most Europeans alleged that America was after oil, or sought global hegemony in its plans to take out the havens of terror. Now those same voices–more strident than ever–are cynical and coldly rational: We are spending too much money, too many Americans are dying, the mythical “Afghanistan pipeline” and “Iraqi oil” won’t pay for the costs after all, such countries can never adopt democracies, and so on.
Only the ossified Left is shameless enough to have screamed for one year that we were after the petroleum of Iraq, and then harangue that we are breaking our treasury through foreign reconstruction, hoodwinked into thinking Arab natural resources might instead have shouldered the costs of mammoth aid.
Only the ossified Left objects to American foreign aid if it involves first taking out fascists and mass murderers in the bargain.
Only the ossified Left for a year condemned Afghanistan as either hopeless or immoral, but now claims that, in comparison to Iraq, it was a necessary and understandable multilateral response all along.
And only the ossified Left could decry poor intelligence for prompting us to go into Iraq, and then suggest we should have acted earlier on poorer intelligence prior to 9/11, as they now suggest with regard to North Korea.
We are winning a difficult peace. It is not surprising that we have made scores of mistakes, since nation rebuilding in the Middle East has no recent pedigree–not targeting and storming into the Sunni Triangle from the very beginning, distrusting and defaming competent and patriotic Iraqi exiles, allowing thousands to stream in from Iran, dismantling the Iraqi army and police, restraining Americans in war from harming vital infrastructure only to allow Iraqis to ruin it in peace, lax security on captured weapons caches, keeping Iraqis in the shadows while we spoke about their reform, and trying to create a political utopia when the avoidance of tyranny was our real chore. Surely someone in the administration should have been explaining to the American people daily the historical nature of our victory, the critical issues now in play worldwide, and the humane nature of our sacrifice–if only to offer some counterweight to the monotonous negativism of National Public Radio, Nightline, the New York Times, and the Democratic contenders. Instead we have had mostly silence–reticence seen not as Olympian magnanimity, but rather as a sign of weakness that only emboldened critics and fueled the hysteria.
Yet throughout this tumultuous year, what amazes is not that we made errors, or major blunders even–but how quickly we reacted, adjusted, and learned from our mistakes. So we press on, learning as we go, combining power with justice, determined to leave behind something better than we found. We are comforted by knowing that for all the current yelling from Democratic candidates, our own intelligentsia, and the European mainstream, this has not been a war of conquest or exploitation, but something altogether different–a needed effort that, if we see it through, will end up doing a great deal of good for everyone involved.
Our efforts in Iraq to remove a genocidal murderer and inaugurate democracy are not a “quagmire,” but one of the brightest moments in recent American history–and we need not be ashamed to say that, again and again and again.