EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial appears in the (forthcoming) June 14, 2004, issue of National Review.
In a primetime speech, the first of several he is to give weekly, President Bush reiterated his vision for the new Iraq. If the speech didn’t contain anything new, except for the symbolic gesture of proposing to destroy Abu Ghraib, it usefully signaled the president’s resolve and engagement. Bush did not grovel and apologize for past mistakes, as his critics would like. But he spoke relatively frankly about the difficulties in Iraq and our “failure”–his word–to create a credible Iraqi military force. He stood by his essential vision of a free Iraq, but did it in a non-utopian key. He declared his goal “a representative government that protects basic rights,” and stipulated that “Iraqis will raise up a government that reflects their own culture and values.” Just so.
Bush’s speech came in an environment characterized by declining public support, increasing elite panic, and deepening distress among the war’s most fervent supporters. Some perspective: It is important always to keep in mind the achievement of toppling Saddam, which removed a persistent threat to the region and our interests there. The deterrent effect on other rogue regimes will work in our favor in the future, and already has with Qaddafi’s Libya. Yes, the occupation has been difficult, but it should be judged by Iraqi standards rather than American ones. Iraq is a Third World country ravaged by three decades of tyranny. In that context, the limited progress we have made in a year should be mildly encouraging and certainly not a cause for the black despair that has seized the political class. It is even becoming respectable to call for an American pullout, once the position only of the fringe Dennis Kucinich. Such a pullout would be a self-fulfilling recipe for disaster: Nothing would so ensure that Iraq goes down as “another Vietnam,” the favorite phrase of Bush’s critics.
Even some supporters of the war have joined the Despair Caucus, if for different reasons. A cadre of conservatives has been harshly denouncing the Bush administration for the raid on Ahmed Chalabi. It was indeed a ham-fisted way to distance ourselves from Chalabi. Whatever the merits of the head of the Iraqi National Congress–who has often been accused of wrongdoing–he is perceived as an ally of the United States and this public slap at him sends the message that it is risky to be our friend. That said, the Bush administration has been much more prudent in its dealings with Chalabi than the Iraqi’s boosters in the U.S would have wanted. We gave Chalabi a chance to generate political support as one of 25 members of the Iraqi Governing Council, and his popularity is not yet in evidence.
But Chalabi is a footnote to the larger story in Iraq, no matter what his fervent critics in the press or fervent friends in Washington say. It has lately become a cliche among certain opinion writers that the U.S. must be seen to “lose” in Iraq, either militarily or politically, in order to give the force defeating us stature and legitimacy. This is nonsense. The U.S. must be seen to win by both Iraqis and Arabs generally, first by crushing its violent opponents in Iraq and then by establishing a stable, decent government–the ultimate victory. In this regard, no recent development has been more important than the U.S. operations against Moqtada (“Mookie,” as the troops call him) al-Sadr in the south. The U.S. has dealt severe military blows to the forces of al-Sadr at the same time as it has isolated him politically by working with other, more reasonable clerics. This is a significant achievement, although one that is obscured by the media’s obsession with Abu Ghraib.
The political process appears to be roughly on track for the June 30 handover to an interim government. June 30 won’t be the magic date when attacks in Iraq cease or when they are perceived to be assaults against the Iraqi people, as the administration has sometimes suggested. But it will be a step forward, and the consultative assembly slated for selection in July in a caucus-like process will be Iraq’s first genuinely, if crudely, representative institution in decades. Many hard days are ahead. Bush is now seeking the fourth post-invasion U.N. resolution, but it is unlikely to bring much in the way of international help. Bush has called Iraq a “heavy lift,” and Rumsfeld has called it a “hard slog.” We have no choice but to keep lifting, keep slogging.