The Corner

re: Vanity Fair

David Rose writes that he “spent the better part of two weeks in conversations with some of the most respected voices among the neoconservative elite. What I discover is that none them is optimistic.”

Of course they are not optimistic. If they were, they’d be fools since it is obvious that after three years the mighty American military machine has not been able to suppress insurgents, terrorists and thugs armed with cell phones and garage door openers. That is depressing and frustrating.

Rose adds: “Their dismay extends beyond the tactical issues of whether America did right or wrong, to the underlying question of whether exporting democracy is something America knows how to do.”

I would argue that there has never been any question: No one knows how to export democracy, certainly not to a region as troubled as the Middle East. But there is a difference between exporting democracy and supporting democrats and freedom fighters wherever you find them. By failing to do that in the Middle East (as we did, for example in Eastern Europe), we left people in the region with only two options: dead-end dictatorships or the Islamist dream of victory and conquest.

I also would argue that the evidence does not suggest that most Iraqis prefer not to be free, that most would rather not choose their leaders, that a majority enjoys a good suicide bombing every day or two.

The evidence suggests that a fanatical, determined minority can do vast amounts of damage, can destroy faster than anyone can build, can so terrorize people that they relinquish their hopes in exchange for protection. Why is this surprising? When the Bolsheviks took over Russia, it was not because most Russians were Marxist-Leninists. Most Germans were not Nazis in the early 1930s. When New Jersey store owners pay the Mafia protection money it’s not because that’s the way they like it.

That said, it is hard not to conclude that Bush, Rumsfeld et al. failed to appreciate this harsh reality. It also appears they did not distinguish between toppling Saddam (a relatively easy mission to accomplish) and defeating his regime (a much tougher and bloodier task). They apparently did not appreciate how vital it would be to provide security for Iraqis, especially once the decision was made to disband the Iraqi army. And, evidently, they thought that to prevail in Iraq did not require making counter-insurgency the clear priority, or perhaps they underestimated the strength of this counterinsurgency.

So what to do now? Fred Kagan has what I consider a very important piece in The Weekly Standard. He writes:

The United States has two options in Iraq: stay and try to win, or cut, run, and lose. Attempts to chart a middle course–partial withdrawal or redeployment, accelerated hand-over to the Iraqis, political deals with Syria or Iran–ignore the realities of the military situation. The real choice we face is this: Is it better to accept defeat than to endure the pain of trying to succeed?

Fred does more than say we need to better. He outlines how:

We can and must restore basic security to Baghdad and to the key cities and towns of the Sunni Triangle. … The U.S. and Iraqi governments have made it clear that the war will be won or lost in Baghdad. …

The lessons of the U.S. military program in Iraq are reasonably clear by now. American forces, working with Iraqis, can clear areas dominated by terrorists and insurgents. The efforts to do so lead initially to an upsurge in violence as the insurgents resist, but then to greater calm. In places like Tal Afar, Al Qaim, and other small towns along the Upper Euphrates River valley, Sadr City in 2004, and even Falluja (in the second battle in 2004), clearing operations have succeeded. In many of these cases, however, the U.S. command left inadequate American forces behind to help the Iraqi troops hold the area, with the result that insurgents gradually infiltrated and began to destabilize these regions once again. The lack of any coherent plan to move from one cleared area to another, moreover, often meant that stabilized towns were islands in a tumultuous sea.

The failure to hold cleared areas results in part from inadequate U.S. troop levels, but primarily from a strategy mistakenly obsessed with the irritation the American presence causes. The presence of U.S. combat forces is without doubt an irritant in Iraqi society. But so is the U.S. failure to assert control. When sectarian chaos recently engulfed Balad, local Iraqi leaders wondered loudly where the Americans were. In parts of Baghdad, local leaders warn their people to interact with Iraqi Police formations only if Americans are present. Increasingly, Sunni Arabs who fear the rise of Shiite death squads see U.S. troops as potential protectors as well as occupiers. The issue is not so much the presence of U.S. troops, but whether they provide the essential service the Iraqis most need–security. To the extent that American forces bring security, resentment of their presence will be mitigated by relief from fear. It won’t be perfect. Attacks will continue and radical imams will preach blood-curdling sermons. But it will be much better.

This piece is, IMHO, required reading.

Clifford D. MayClifford D. May is an American journalist and editor. He is the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative policy institute created shortly after the 9/11 attacks, ...