The root cause of our problems in Iraq is an excessively narrow vision, which has blinded us to the real strategic context, and therefore left us running after epiphenomena instead of developing a proper policy and a sensible mission. Nonetheless, our overwhelming military superiority has, so far, at least, made it possible for us to overcome a series of potential crises.
Like many others, I would have preferred our armed forces to pursue the murderers of the four security men, and to arrest or destroy them and their henchmen in Fallujah. Like Michael Rubin, I agree that the delay discouraged the long-suffering Iraqis and tortured them with the terrible thought that the son of Bush may yet betray them as his father did. But we are now closing in on the terrorists in Fallujah, and I have every confidence that we will destroy them in short order. (By the way, if you want to read a really good analysis of the battle of Fallujah, rather than endure the rantings of various retired officers and armchair generals, check out www.belmontclub.blogspot.com).
Meanwhile, back in Najaf, where the Iranian puppet Moqtada al Sadr took cowardly refuge among the holy shrines of the Shiite faith, there are armed bands in the streets, fighting Moqtada’s thugs. As some of us have said all along, the Iraqi Shiites do not like their Iranian cousins very much, and they have never had much esteem for this excessively brash and altogether too-young man who has meager religious standing and precious little culture. Perhaps he will become a casualty of Iraqi Shiite self-assertion, an outcome devoutly to be desired. Perhaps, in the end, the Marines and the special-forces units will have to do it themselves. Perhaps, best of all, all will join to remove the thug. Time will tell. But if we clean up Najaf and Fallujah, the biggest winner will be Ayatollah Sistani, who can then have his cake (the defeat of his enemies) and eat it too (the delay and phony “negotiations” came in no small part at his request).
So while, as usual in human events, these things could and should have been done better, we are nonetheless moving in the right direction in the ground war. The more serious blunders are political, as they have been since well before Operation Iraqi Freedom. We should have prepared the political battleground before the fighting ever started, by creating a democratic Iraqi government-in-exile. But internal divisions within the Bush administration proved intractable, and future historians will no doubt marvel at the fact that more passion and more man hours were spent fighting Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress than combating the likes of Moqtada and the remnants of Saddam’s security forces. Indeed, the internal battle consumed countless hours in recent weeks, as is demonstrated by the cascade of anti-Chalabi leaks from his many mortal enemies at the Department of State and the Central Intelligence Agency.
Thus paralyzed with regard to one of the central issues of our time–how best to support newly freed countries in the Middle East–we have been coping with the bane of modern government, namely the morning news. One has the impression that the CPA, even Viceroy Bremer himself, constantly seeks to remedy whatever bad news hits the popular press, rather than carrying out a thoughtful policy. Thus, when the dual unpleasantness of Najaf and Fallujah dominated the headlines, we responded in two missteps: first caving in to the outrageous demands of the U.N.’s Lakhtar Brahimi (best known in the region for delivering the Lebanese people to Syrian tyranny in 1989) and then announcing we would welcome Baathists back to positions of authority (in truth, the appeasement of the Baathists had started months ago, most notably in the north, where the media darling, General Petreus, had encouraged the creation of a municipal government with an overwhelming majority of Baathists).
The depth of Iraqi revulsion at these two intemperate decisions can be probed by looking at the better Iraqi blogs (like Iraq the Model, or Hammorabi, or Iraq & Iraqis). We had proclaimed that we were going to liberate the country from Saddam’s tyranny, but we now say that the Baathists must have a share of power. Worse yet, after slowly and painfully constructing a transitional government, we then shrug our collective shoulders and turn over the enterprise to the United Nations, best known in Iraq for its intimate embrace of Saddam, its blatant theft of tens of billions of dollars from the “crude-for-food” program, and its cowardice under fire. Do not forget, for the Iraqis most certainly do not, that Kofi Annan’s minions ran away after the first bombs directed at their offices, or that Kofi Annan’s son is on the list of beneficiaries of “crude for food.”
All of which bespeaks panic, rather than thoughtful policy. The goal of American policy–in the eloquent words of President Bush–is the democratization of the Middle East, and democracy means that the people choose their leaders. Our panicky decisions suggested that we were not serious, that we reserved to ourselves the right to make all those decisions, even in the last days of Coalition hegemony. There was no urgent reason for us to make those decisions, indeed they should have been left to the Iraqis. If the Iraqi government decides to give jobs to Baathists, so be it; the officials of that government will have to submit to the electoral judgment of their own people. And the people, not the United Nations, should choose the Iraqi government.
There were indeed decisions that the Coalition, and the American government, should have made. Some were, and some weren’t. It seems that there is still a lot of money in the kitty for “reconstruction,” and you can be sure that there is no shortage of entrepreneurial companies willing and able to come to Iraq and start work, despite the scary security situation. The CPA has been slow to reconstruct, as it has been slow to get reliable news media on the air in Iraq, although that is now moving forward, to Bremer’s credit. But, to his shame, the Nuremberg process has not even begun, and that process is arguably the single-most important thing in building a viable Iraqi democracy. You want the rule of law? Then haul the miscreants of the Saddam tyranny in front of a judge and jury, and prosecute them. How can it be that, more than a full year after the fall of Saddam, not a single top Baathist has been brought to justice? (And why, now that you ask, have our media not been pounding this drum? Perhaps because some of them have employed former officials of Saddam’s information ministry, a dirty little secret that helps understand many things)?
It would seem intuitively obvious that the rule of law is the bedrock of democracy, and that we should have devoted energy and passion to getting the process under way. Which brings us back to another failure: An Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant for Moqtada six months ago, yet he was never arrested. We judged that he was losing popularity (I agree) and that time was working against him (yes), and hence we should just let events take their course (wrong). And then, again in what seems a panicky decision, we decided to shut down his newspaper, but leaving him at large.
If we had been true to our principles, we would have enforced the arrest warrant. And if we had a proper understanding of the region, we would have realized that any move against him was bound to provoke a swarm of angry hornets. We cannot “solve” Iraq’s problems by acting solely within the confines of the nation, because at least three other terror masters of some significance–Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia–are fighting for their survival in Iraq. Against us. Moqtada is an Iranian creature, and Iran has long since created a huge network inside Iraq, ready to respond to orders from Tehran. The model is Lebanon in the Eighties and Nineties, a combination of (suicidal and other) terrorism, insurrection, hostage taking, religious indoctrination, and blackmail. They thoughtfully announced their intentions even before we set boot in Iraq, but our misnamed intelligence community thought they didn’t mean it. Thus we were unprepared for March and April, and thus I suspect we are largely unprepared for the next big wave, which will come both before and after the turnover of power in late June and early July. I am told that preparations are under way for large-scale operations against the Coalition in Karbala, the second of the Shiite centers.
Our military men are indeed superb, and I think the battle of Fallujah will turn out to be a minor masterpiece of tactical brilliance and human courage. But it is unfair to reward these great fighters with policies invented from one day to the next. The global war on terror requires clear definition, a serious policy, and a strategic plan, which is then applied systematically by all elements of the government. That plan must be regional, at a minimum, and it must include regime change in Syria and Iran, along with a meaningful change of policy in the Saudi kingdom. I am told that the Saudis are now shaken by al Qaeda attacks within their borders, and are begging for help from us. If true, our help must be conditional on the termination of Saudi assistance to terrorists, and to those who man the terror assembly line in the radical mosques and schools spread throughout the West.
There is no shortage of wisdom in this administration, and our leaders should have learned by now not to listen to the whispers of British, Saudi, and European diplomats when they tell us that the Palestinian question is the only thing that really matters, and that we should show understanding for the sensitivities of our enemies, rather than show indifference to their whining because we know they are trying to kill us.
Remember one of the early dicta of Machiavelli: If you are victorious, everyone will judge your methods to have been appropriate. If you lose, you’re a bum.