We’re winning in Iraq. Let’s not lose at home.
by Victor Davis Hanson
WSJ Opinion Journal
Last week the golden dome of the Askariya shrine in Samarra was blown apart. Sectarian riots followed, and reprisals and deaths ensued. Thugs and criminals came out of the woodwork to foment further violence. But instead of the apocalypse of an ensuing civil war, a curfew was enforced. Iraqi security forces stepped in with some success. Shaken Sunni and Shiite leaders appeared on television to urge restraint, and there appeared at least the semblance of reconciliation that may soon presage a viable coalition government.
But here at home you would have thought that our own capitol dome had exploded. Indeed, Americans more than the Iraqis needed such advice for calm to quiet our own frenzy. Almost before the golden shards of the mosque hit the pavement, pundits wrote off the war as lost — as we heard the tired metaphors of “final straw” and “camel’s back” mindlessly repeated. The long-anticipated civil strife among Shiites and Sunnis, we were assured, was not merely imminent, but already well upon us. Then the great civil war sort of fizzled out; our own frenzy subsided; and now exhausted we await next week’s new prescription of doom — apparently the hyped-up story of Arabs at our ports. That the Iraqi security forces are becoming bigger and better, that we have witnessed three successful elections, and that hundreds of brave American soldiers have died to get us to the brink of seeing an Iraqi government emerge was forgotten in a 24-hour news cycle.
Few observers suggested that the Samarra bombing of a holy mosque by radical Muslims might be a sign of the terrorists’ desperation — killers who have not, and cannot, defeat the U.S. military. After the furor over Danish cartoons, French rioting and Iranian nuclear perfidy, the entire world is turning on radical Islam and the terrorists feel keenly this rising tide of opposition on the frontline in Iraq.
True, the Sunni Triangle, unlike southern Iraq and Kurdistan, is often inhospitable to the forces of reconstruction — but hardly lost to jihadists and militias as we are told. There is a disturbing sameness to our acrimony at home, as we recall all the links in this chain of America hysteria from the brouhaha over George Bush’s flight suit to purported flushed Korans at Guantanamo Bay. Each time we are lectured that the looting, Abu Ghraib, the embalming of Uday and Qusay, the demeaning oral exam of Saddam, unarmored Humvees, inadequate body armor or the latest catastrophe has squandered our victory, the unimpressed U.S. military simply goes about what it does best — defeating the terrorists and training the Iraqi military to serve a democratic government. They stay focused in this long war, while our pundits prepare the next controversy.
The second-guessing of 2003 still daily obsesses us: We should have had better intelligence; we could have kept the Iraqi military intact; we would have been better off deploying more troops. Had our forefathers embraced such a suicidal and reactionary wartime mentality, Americans would have still torn each other apart over Valley Forge years later on the eve of Yorktown — or refought Pearl Harbor even as they steamed out to Okinawa.
There is a more disturbing element to these self-serving, always evolving pronouncements of the “my perfect war, but your disastrous peace” syndrome. Conservatives who insisted that we needed more initial troops are often the same ones who now decry that too much money has been spent in Iraq. Liberals who chant “no blood for oil” lament that we unnecessarily ratcheted up the global price of petroleum. Progressives who charge that we are imperialists also indict us for being naively idealistic in thinking democracy could take root in post-Baathist Iraq and providing aid of a magnitude not seen since the Marshall Plan. For many, Iraq is no longer a war whose prognosis is to be judged empirically. It has instead transmogrified into a powerful symbol that apparently must serve deeply held, but preconceived, beliefs — the deceptions of Mr. Bush, the folly of a neoconservative cabal, the necessary comeuppance of the American imperium, or the greed of an oil-hungry U.S.
If many are determined to see the Iraqi war as lost without a plan, it hardly seems so to 130,000 U.S. soldiers still over there. They explain to visitors that they have always had a design: defeat the Islamic terrorists; train a competent Iraqi military; and provide requisite time for a democratic Iraqi government to garner public support away from the Islamists.
We point fingers at each other; soldiers under fire point to their achievements: Largely because they fight jihadists over there, there has not been another 9/11 here. Because Saddam is gone, reform is not just confined to Iraq, but taking hold in Lebanon, Egypt and the Gulf. We hear the military is nearly ruined after conducting two wars and staying on to birth two democracies; its soldiers feel that they are more experienced and lethal, and on the verge of pulling off the nearly impossible: offering a people terrorized from nightmarish oppression something other than the false choice of dictatorship or theocracy — and making the U.S. safer for the effort.
The secretary of defense, like officers in Iraq, did not welcome the war, but felt that it needed to be fought and will be won. Soldiers and civilian planners express confidence in eventual success, but with awareness of often having only difficult and more difficult choices after Sept. 11. Put too many troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we earn the wages of imperialism, or create a costly footprint that is hard to erase, or engender a dependency among the very ones in whom we wish to ensure self-reliance. Yet deploy too few troops, and instability arises in Kabul and Baghdad, as the Islamists lose their fear of American power and turn on the vulnerable we seek to protect.
In sum, after talking to our soldiers in Iraq and our planners in Washington, what seems to me most inexplicable is the war over the war — not the purported absence of a plan, but that the more we are winning in the field, the more we are losing it at home.
©2006 Victor Davis Hanson