Sizing Up Iraq

Things are coming to a head in the Middle East.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

From the various insurgencies of the Peloponnesian War to the British victory over Communist guerrillas in Malaya, there remain constants across 2,500 years of time and space that presage victory or defeat. Drawing wisdom from that past, there are at least four critical issues that must always be addressed if we are to create a stable Iraq under the auspices of a broad-based consensual government. So far the occupation has been plagued by mistakes, false assumptions, and incompetence — and yet we find ourselves still with a good chance of success.


First, is the United States winning its engagements on the ground? The answer is an overwhelming yes — whether we look, most recently, at Samarra or at the thrashing of the Mahdists in Najaf. The combination of armor incursions, constant sniper attack, and GPS bombing in each case has led to decisive tactical defeat of the insurgents. Our only setback — the unfortunate pullback from Fallujah — was entirely attributable to our wrongheaded constraint, as if we somehow felt that releasing the terrorists from our death grip would either placate the opposition, empower the Iraqi government, or win accolades from the international community. (See hereherehere, and here.)

In fact, our retreat achieved the opposite effect. Thus the withdrawal from Fallujah will be taught for decades as a textbook case of what not to do when suppressing insurgents. Nevertheless, we have reestablished the fact that we can crush all the opposition on the ground, our willingness to restart real hostilities dependent only on how much flak from our critics in the Middle East and Europe we are willing to take.

Let us hope that our planners have learned that whatever ephemeral public relations or humanitarianism they achieved by sparing the terrorists in Fallujah was vastly outweighed by the death and destruction they wrought and the greater number of lives that must now be sacrificed to defeat the emboldened killers for good. The foreign killers in Fallujah are just the sort of folk who trained in Afghanistan, would like to repeat 9/11, and are psychopathic killers of innocent reformers. Instead of worrying about how they got to Fallujah, we should see it as to our advantage that they are now conveniently collected in one central place and can be dealt with en masse. Because the 4th Infantry Division never came down from Turkey during the war into the Sunni Triangle, hundreds of Baathist killers who should have been crushed were not, and instead they melted away. It is now time to finish the job.

Second, are the terrorists — through their suicide bombing, car explosions, hostage-takings, and beheadings — winning widespread Iraqi support? Here I do not mean the anti-American braggadocio we see on spec when a CNN reporter sticks a microphone into the face of someone whose house has just been demolished. Rather, is there a large minority of Iraqis — perhaps four to five million — who are actively helping the terrorists and Islamicists? Again, so far the answer seems to be no; to the degree that civilians provide help and shelter to a Zarqawi and his thugs, it is predicated on self-interest: His men are ruthless and in the neighborhood, while the Americans are forgiving and distant. There is as yet no mass movement analogous to the Vietcong — one with a clear-cut and popular agenda to seize power and either restore Saddam or institute sharia. Indeed, the Iraqi democratic military has suffered as many battle casualties in its struggle against the terrorists as have the Americans.

Third, does fighting the terrorists lead to a political resolution that offers manifest advantages to the majority of Iraqis, and is it recognized as such?The answer is yes, with scheduled elections in January that could develop along the lines of those in Afghanistan. The increasing role of the Iraqi defense forces, the growing prominence of Mr. Allawi, and the preparations for voting in less than four months can all offer a political endgame that will soon lead to some sort of greater freedom and prosperity. That we have been inept in publicizing our achievements is regrettable; but still, most Iraqis grasp that American success leads to water, power, and jobs, and that Zarqawi’s victory ensures heads rolling on the ground or spiked on fence posts.

Unlike the case of South Vietnam, the provisional democratic government is not flanked by a hostile nuclear China or Soviet Union, nor is it attacked by an organized conventional military fueled by the romance of a secular and global leftist utopianism. Not even French students march on behalf of Zarqawi’s beheaders. So there is an opportunity for a political dynamic to emerge that terrifies al Qaeda: an oil-rich democratic Iraqi state, near a similarly consensual Turkey and Afghanistan, with nuclear India, Russia, and Pakistan — all hostile to Islamic fascists — nearby.

Indeed, the long-term strategic outlook for al Qaeda is far worse than its occasional macabre killings on the ground might suggest: Its victims are often Muslims, from all over the world, and are entirely innocent. So far the terrorists have not galvanized the Arab Street as much as dealt a crushing public-relations blow to Islam itself, succeeding in just a few years to make the young Arab Muslim male the most suspicious and scrutinized fellow on the planet. Indeed, in three years bin Laden and Zarqawi have done for the stereotyping of Arabs what Hitler did for Germans in 15 — and it will take decades to undo the damage to the reputations of millions in the Middle East not yet born.

Fourth, is there a mechanism for the United States to ease out of Iraq? More so than we think. In fact, the first step was eliminating Saddam Hussein. His departure meant that we did not need to keep tens of thousands of troops in the Gulf to box in a rogue Iraq. Thus, after the January elections, our goal should be redeployment rather than entirely new troop commitments: The 10,000 not needed in Saudi Arabia can be transferred to garrison duty to protect the Iraqi democracy, while we also draw down in the Gulf States and likewise shift those assets to bases in Iraq. In a larger sense, if 40,000 Americans who would be doing little in Germany are instead keeping the peace in Iraq, the overall cost to the American taxpayer is about the same.


Our eventual aim should be perhaps around 50,000 American troops in the region — or not that many more present than when Saddam was in power. Even if the worst-case scenario were to transpire in January — an elected Islamist government ordering us to leave — we would still have plenty of alternatives. Beside not having to come through with the promised $87 billion in relief, we can also make it clear that an Islamist Iraq is subject to the same conditions as the mullocracy in Iran — veritable ostracism from the world community, prohibition from acquiring nuclear weapons, and internal problems from imposing sharia on a restless youth.

And the next time the United States uses force in the Middle East, we shall not do nation-building but rather serious GPS-ing at 20,000 feet in punitive Roman fashion. Indeed, despite the glum punditry, the sacrifice of blood and treasure to bring freedom to the Iraqis has been a landmark event by virtue of the very attempt. For decades, a corrupt Arab League — now unconcerned that Arab Muslims have murdered 50,000 black Africans but never losing a chance to damn Israelis for killing 30 Palestinian militants — whined that neocolonialism, Cold War realpolitik, oil, and imperialism precluded Western support for democratic reform.

Well now, Arab League, here you have your long-sought-after dream: The United States spent its own blood to take out a fascist, committed billions in aid to jump start democracy, and lobbied the world to forgive Iraqi debt — only to find either silence from the region’s dictators or their active help for the beheaders and car bombers seeking to inaugurate an 8th-century fascist caliphate. The point? The Iraqi people and the Arab Middle East will soon have to go on record either accepting or rejecting the chance for democracy. If they choose theocracy, anarchy, or autocracy, well, the United States can say at least it tried to offer them a way out of their self-induced misery — but the region turned out to prefer the Dark Ages after all and must be left alone to suffer the consequences of that decision.

If an aggregate $50 billion in aid to Egypt; billions more to the Palestinians and Jordanians; the removal of the bloodthirsty Saddam Hussein and the Taliban; $87 billion invested in Iraq and an attempt to relieve its international debt; saving the Kuwaitis; protecting the Saudis; stopping the genocide of Muslims in the Balkans; and keeping the Persian Gulf safe gets us sky-high cartel oil prices and poll data showing that 95 percent of the Middle East does not like America, it is time to try something else.

I could start with the modest suggestion of a gradual cutting off all aid to Egypt, halting most immigration to the United States from the Middle East (in the manner we once did with Communist Eastern Europe), and announcing a carrot-and-stick non-interventionist Bush Doctrine II. All future Middle East military and economic aid would be predicated on the recipient’s having a democratic government, while evidence of either terrorist bases or weapons of mass destruction would earn sustained U.S. bombing. Finally, we need a serious energy policy beside the pie-in-the-sky “hydrogen car” or “wind and solar” panacea. If the windmills won’t spin for the beach houses off the coast of Nantucket, then they won’t spin for us in Fresno either.

We can start by a compromise to drill for oil in the United States while clamping down on gas-guzzling cars. Nuclear power, more hydroelectric damns, oil shale, and mass transit may require subsidies, but billions of U.S. petrodollars are already subsidizing a corrupt Middle East, transmogrifying the type of violence we see routinely in Africa or Asia into something that can literally end the world as we know it.


Meanwhile, Senator Kerry offers neither a plan to stay nor one to leave Iraq, only something “secret.” He thinks a country that defeated Japan, Italy, and Germany at the same time as a warm-up to keeping at bay a nuclear Soviet Union and China must fail if she takes on Afghanistan and Iraq at once. His trial balloons so far — beg the Germans and French to come in and give the Iranians clean uranium — have met with polite chuckles. We already know the effect that such warmed-over Carterism will have in Iraq: failure with the added wage of humiliation.

In fact, Kerry’s only chance for honest intellectual criticism of the Bush administration might have come from the right: stern remonstrations over our tolerance of looting, inability to train Iraqis in real numbers, laxity in shutting off the borders, failure to control arms depots, tolerance for terrorist enclaves in Fallujah, and sloth in releasing aid money to grass-roots organizations. Yet by putting a tired Richard Holbrook or a whining Jamie Rubin on television, Kerry suggests that far from chastising Bush for doing too little, he believes that the president has already done too much.

The administration’s gaffes all share a common theme of restraining our military power in fear of either Middle Eastern or European censure. But once one climbs into a cesspool like Iraq, one must either clean it up or go home, and that means suffering the 48-hour hysteria of the global media about collateral damage in exchange for killing the terrorists and freeing the country. Only that way can we impress the fence-sitting Iraqis that we employ an iron fist in service to their own security and prosperity, and thus we — not the beheaders and kidnappers — are their only partners for peace.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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