High Noon on June 30?

by Victor Davis Hanson

The Oregonian

Pessimism surrounds the proposed June 30th transfer from the American-led coalition authority to the Iraqi interim government. Critics, left and right, fear that we are ram-rodding democracy down the throats of Iraqis. President Al-Yawer and his reformers are a fragile bunch, we are constantly warned. They are confronted with ex-Baathist assassins, al Qaeda beheaders, and Shiite Mahdists, in addition to the “normal” chaos of 150 tribes and 2,000 clans. So in such a thicketed landscape we should fear that the transition is far too abrupt and early. Surely there is insufficient time to ensure proper Western-style constitutional protections against the emergence of a much feared one-election, one-time mobocracy.

Others, however, are just as critical that the turn-over of power after little more than a year is far too late—and that we should now move up the date of scheduled elections even sooner to give the Iraqis a firm sense of nationhood and responsibility. What started out as liberation, in this view, due to our delays has now turned into an occupation—a situation bitterly resented that will only worsen the longer we control the country.

Both sides at least agree that the desperate extremists will step up their attacks as we near the transition to Iraqi autonomy. They must—or they will lose Iraq as they did Afghanistan. So everyone sighs that we cannot cut-and-run. And no one is quite sure how autonomous Iraq will really be at first—liable to consult, join with, or order the US military on operations within its borders.

But is the future really so bleak? First, for better or worse, the Iraqis will now be increasingly in charge of their own security and future. Psychologically, the climate will change almost immediately from “they” to “we” are responsible for policing the streets, keeping the power on, and hunting down the terrorists. Of course, 150,000 coalition soldiers won’t disappear. In fact, they will play a pivotal role in firming up the interim government—especially with precision-guided air strikes aimed at terrorist enclaves that will have no such recourse to multifaceted weapons.

To a much greater degree, Iraqis—not a Paul Bremer in suit-and-tie or camouflaged General Kimmet—will be holding press conferences, appearing ubiquitously on television, and issuing communiqués. In a cultural landscape that puts a high premium on pride and status, the emergence of visible and identifiable Iraqi leaders will be worth a division or two in the war against the terrorists.

The key, of course, will be for the United States to stay engaged as it did in Korea and the Balkans—and not flee as it did in Vietnam circa 1974-5. Only its vigilant presence can ward off potential enemies of nascent American-sponsored democracies. Ambiguity, in fact, is nothing new to American forces abroad that still are not always quite sure of the parameters of independent action in Kosovo after seven years—or even in Korea after 50.

Already sixty percent of the ministries have been turned over to Iraqis, and we are starting to see the security blueprint of things to come.  Americans increasingly use Special Forces and air strikes to hit terrorist concentrations, even as the country outside the Sunni Triangle is beginning to seem more normal under Iraqi control.

If we forgo the 24-hour news cycle and look at history, the transition also does not look so depressing. The Federal Republic of Germany did not even come into formal existence until 1949, four years after the war. And Germany, unlike Iraq, had been utterly devastated, its fascists were either dead or humiliated during the war, and its desperate, beaten populace was facing a common communist foreign enemy. So to have thousands of Iraqis working for a consensual government a little more than a year after Saddam’s fall amid a global war on terrorism is little short of miraculous.

Similarly, the present chaos must be seen in the context of Saddam’s annual killing, his prior twelve-year long shooting war over two-thirds of Iraqi airspace, and the oppressive UN embargo. In pre-2003 Iraq somewhere between 20-40,000 innocents were killed annually by Saddam or died as an indirect result of his ruination of the country. Thus the choice in Iraq was never between bad and good, but between not as bad and much worse—the terrible arithmetic that meant thousands of bodies were piling up yearly well before Spring 2003. The road to Iraqi democracy is awfully messy, but it should be compared to the alternative of Saddam, not the local Rotary Club elections.

There is another aspect of the post June-30 transfer that transcends the tactical situation on the ground. The appearance of a legitimate government, soon to be ratified by elections, will pose a dilemma for the Arab League. Whatever propaganda al Jazeera may broadcast about heroic terrorists and car bombers in Fallujah, historic forces are in play that will only accelerate after June 30 and gradually tilt in America’s favor. There will soon be noisy parliamentary proceedings in Iraq among Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. Pictures will be broadcast worldwide of their consensual deliberations—even as Dark-Age Islamicists try to blow up an array of holy men, sheiks, secularists, women, and democratic advocates.

How well, then, will the Jihadists’ infomercials play— decrying not an American occupation, corrupt dictators, or decadent royals, but the “injustice” of soon to be elected Arab legislators? July 30 will bring neither chaos nor salvation, but it does mark the completion of yet another hurdle in the most amazing and audacious national transformation since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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