Politics & Policy

“Hearts and Minds”

Bush and Mao in Iraq.

“Without a political goal, guerrilla warfare must fail, as it must if political objectives do not coincide with the aspirations of the people and their sympathy, co-operation, and assistance cannot be gained.”–Mao Tse-tung

Democratic Sen. Carl Levin was on Meet the Press Sunday to comment on the referendum on Iraq’s constitution. Asked if it would be a setback if the constitution were defeated, he said: “It is a setback. But the constitution, if it’s adopted, is also a setback.” So either way, it’s a defeat. This is the liberal gloss on Iraq. There is no such thing as a good development.

But Saturday’s vote to adopt–or so it seems from early returns–a constitution is such a development. The Bush administration understands, like Mao, that fighting an insurgency isn’t just a military battle, but a political one. Both sides in an insurgency are struggling for the support of the population, which either provides insurgents the sustenance they need to survive or does not. This means the political process is of paramount importance.

The administration has kept it moving by sticking mercilessly to preordained political deadlines. And U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been working to bring the Sunnis, who provide the base for the insurgency, into the process by softening provisions they object to in the constitution. On the strength of an 11th-hour promise of a new mechanism to amend the constitution, the largest Sunni party endorsed its passage. Most Sunnis still voted against it, but the Sunnis are now split, an improvement over uniform hostility.

We have made many mistakes in Iraq, including conducting the kind of large military sweeps that always fail in a counterinsurgency. Insurgents rarely stand and fight–Fallujah was an exception–and instead tend to disappear to show up again later. That’s why the classic counterinsurgency tactic is “sweep, clear, and hold.”

We haven’t been holding, because we want Iraqi troops to do it. Critics look at this and say, “We don’t have enough troops to do the job,” which is both true and misses the point. We don’t have enough troops to do a job that we don’t want our troops to perform in the first place. A foreign occupying army is–here is another political consideration–a great irritant in any country, and garrisoning all of Iraq with American GIs might only stoke the nationalist backlash that we hope to tamp down. So we train Iraqi forces.

The prison-abuse scandal too was a profound error. Prisoners should be famously well treated, which wins political points and–if the counterinsurgent campaign is going very well–encourages surrenders. This is a lesson as old as the Revolutionary War, when British brutality tipped the American population decisively in favor of the revolution. The phrase “hearts and minds” dates all the way back to that conflict. (In case you’re wondering: No, I’m not comparing our freedom-loving revolutionaries to the insurgents in Iraq.)

But insurgents must also worry about “hearts and minds.” This is Mao’s central insight, and the Iraqi insurgents seem oblivious to it. It is not unusual for insurgencies to calculate that worse is better–the rebel Emiliano Zapata burned cane fields in Mexico at the beginning of the last century to deny peasants work so they would join him instead. Indiscriminate terrorism, however, usually backfires, as it did on the Huk rebels in the Philippines after World War II and on the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s. Al Qaeda big Ayman al-Zawahri’s recent letter to Abu Zarqawi expressed the understandable worry that slaughtering innocent Iraqis is not a good advertisement for the cause.

To this point, Zarqawi and other parts of the insurgency have fed on the sheer Sunni disaffection from the new Iraq. But Sunnis are now voting, and some of their leaders are willing to negotiate with the Shiites and the Kurds. It is through this process, through politics, that the insurgency will be worn down. If that happens, President Bush’s critics will be at a loss as to why, but Mao would understand.

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.

(c) 2005 King Features Syndicate

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