Politics & Policy

Come Back, Cowboy

Why public support for the Iraq war is fading.

Four June polls show the president in increasing trouble over the war in Iraq. The poll numbers are bad. But the usual interpretations of them are even worse–and, I think, dangerously mistaken.

First, the numbers: In the AP/Ipsos poll, only 41 percent of Americans support Bush’s handling of the Iraq war; in the CBS/New York Times poll it’s only 37 percent. In the Gallup poll, 56 percent say the war isn’t worth fighting. In the Post/ABC poll, almost 60 percent say the same, with two thirds seeing the U.S as “bogged down” in Iraq and 52 percent not believing the fighting there contributes to our long-term security. The biggest majority–nearly three-quarters–say our level of casualties is “unacceptable.”

Why is the public mood so defeatist? Some say it’s because Americans don’t have the patience for the long war we face and have grown too soft to accept the casualties we must accept to win. Jim Hoagland blames it on the Bush administration’s “lack of serious accountability for lies, mistakes and worse in the military and civilian chain of command.”

I don’t buy the “soft America” argument. I agree that the administration is at fault, but for an entirely different reason: because Cowboy George morphed into Cautious George. Cowboy George was a bold leader, unafraid to take the tough offensive actions we must take to win this war. He led us in the first two years after 9/11, and Americans rallied behind him in numbers so overwhelming they made “soft America” all but invisible. But after our conquest of the Iraqi military in 2003, Cautious George replaced Cowboy George. Cautious George is forcing us to fight with one hand tied behind our back by pretending we are fighting against one country only. In fact, we are fighting a regional war in Iraq, and have been since day one. It’s past time for America to acknowledge that fact and act on it. Time to make all the Middle Eastern despots who are pouring money, men, and arms into the battle in Iraq stop.

Because the president has not done this, most Americans think we are fighting only against Iraqis–local people, dependent on local resources. In that light, our inability to stem the daily toll of bombs and blood looks like evidence that most Iraqis support terror. Americans don’t see that Iraq as worth fighting for, or that kind of war as winnable. Other polls suggest Americans worry, increasingly, that Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia also threaten our security. They fear that by expending so much blood and treasure on Iraq alone, we may make ourselves more vulnerable to attacks from others.

Iraq is a difficult place, but this all-dark picture is false as well as dispiriting. Inadvertently, the Bush administration has made it look believable by downplaying the big role that foreign governments and their terrorist proxies play in Iraq. Administration spokesmen rarely pointed to the support–diplomatic as well as military–Iraq’s Sunni Baathist terrorists get from Sunni tyrants abroad, and they kept insisting that foreign jihadists are only a minority of the fighters we face. But foreign support is a fact, and harping on the relatively small number of foreign jihadists in Iraq at any one time misses the point. Foreign jihadists are responsible for almost all suicide bombings, and suicide bombings cause a disproportionate share of American and Iraqi casualties. Worse, because foreign jihadists come from all the Arab states as well as Iran, there is an endless supply of them. If we confine ourselves to hunting them down, one by one, only after they infiltrate Iraq, we will be there forever. Far better to act forcefully to stop the infiltration, and do it in a way that sends a message to all terror-succoring states: The free ride is over. The price for continuing to aid and abet the war against us and against a free Iraq has gone up.

We can do that with relative ease, because although foreign jihadists come from all over the Middle East, most of them enter Iraq from only one country: Syria. Syria is a police state, a small, economic basket-case of a country that hosts a multitude of terrorist groups and terror training camps, and which is working to defeat democracy in Lebanon as well as Iraq. Syria could stop the foreign terrorist influx into Iraq if it wanted to, and we could make Syria want to. The Turks did it in 1998, when Syria hosted the PKK terror group and sent them across the border to murder Turkish soldiers and civilians. Then as now, Syria claimed it was doing no such thing, but instead of spluttering impotently, Turkey massed her army on the border and made it clear that if Syria didn’t end PKK infiltration, Turkey would invade. Surprise, surprise, PKK infiltration from Syria suddenly stopped.

We can make Syria stop too, and do it without putting additional strain on our hard-working ground troops. Democracy is a fine long-term goal, but for now, we don’t need to remake Syria; we just need to make her stop. We can use our air power to bomb the rat lines that feed terrorists into Iraq, and blow up all the terror training camps and weapons sites in Syria and Lebanon, hitting enemy targets from the Bekaa Valley to the Iraqi border in a new shock-and-awe campaign. That would end the easy re-supply of suicide bombers in Iraq, and reduce our casualties significantly. It would, equally, send a clear message to terror-harborers everywhere: Stop.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has been asking President Bush for a go-ahead to strike back at Syria from the start of the Syrian campaign against us, but has yet to get one. The president’s toughening rhetoric toward Syria in recent weeks suggests he may, now, be considering it; and the excellent new tone set by our new ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, reinforces that possibility. If President Bush does order military strikes on enemy bases in Syria and Lebanon, it would mark the return of the war leader so many of us cheered in 2001 and 2002–the stand-up Texan who made us believe we can win this war. Come back, Cowboy George. America needs you.

Barbara Lerner is a frequent NRO contributor.


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