The Fighting over the Fighting

Let’s at least be clear about the implications.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

It looks as if Americans have pushed the rock of Iraq almost to the crest, only to let go, like Sisyphus, terrified that it will roll back; we hope only that we will not be crushed in its descent. While giving up now would be disastrous, we will almost certainly not succeed unless we change our tactics.

The Maliki government in the Green Zone wants the Americans quietly to kill the murderous insurgents. The hope is that this would give the Iraqi republic prestige and safety, at the same time allowing it the necessary denial of culpability for the necessary bloodletting.

We, in turn, wait for a tough government to emerge that will either provide a sense of fairness and safety for all Iraqis and so deflate the insurgency, or at least join us in a full assault on the jihadists.

In the meantime, the enemy counts on the evening news showcasing the daily harvest of Iraqis, and the killing of at least four or five Americans each week, to show the worried Arab world the mess that will always follow the appearance of Westerners on Muslim soil, while insidiously sapping our will back home.

Here at home we rage incessantly over the problem and its solution. The American public, for its part, has given the administration the go-ahead in two national elections, but apparently not in a third. In all the hysterical debate over Iraq, rarely do we find specifics about the options we currently face.

What we need at our possible 11th hour is not more shrillness, but concrete facts supporting the variously proposed remedies. Take, for instance, the call for a large increase in troops. To suggest increases is fine, and they may indeed be necessary, but first there must be an explanation of precisely how thousands more soldiers would help the current situation.

We know that another 50,000 or so Americans would raise our profile in Iraq, spur more domestic hysteria, increase the cost of the war, increase the likelihood of Iraqi dependency, and enlarge the rear echelon compounds throughout Iraq that support our frontline fighters. But we are not sure that they would bring about greater security — that is, unless they were allowed different rules of engagement than are currently allowed in Iraq.

Will the thousands of more troops get permission from the Iraqi government to disarm the militias and smash insurgent enclaves? Can they target a Sadr and his thugs with impunity? Will they be able to kill Syrian and Iranian infiltrators across the border? Will they be able to target those in “civilian” dress who help plant the IEDs? And is all that not happening now because there are too few boots on the ground?

Before anyone simply cries for more troops, please explain precisely what they are supposed to do differently than what we are doing now, inasmuch as throughout history it is what fighters do, rather than how many of them there are, that determines their success or failure.

Since critics always evoke Vietnam, we should carefully examine its three phases: (1) 1963-1969, a phase of constant troop increases; (2) 1970-73, a phase of a steady downsizing of the American presence as Vietnamization took hold and counterinsurgency improved; (3) 1974-5, a phase of abandonment of the South Vietnamese government, followed by the conventional victory of the Communists. The second phase was the wisest course and should be the closest to our present strategy.

One can see why our military would expect 500,000 Americans to battle a North Vietnamese army of one million, with Soviet and Chinese advisors manning batteries in the North, along with another couple of hundred thousand Viet Cong guerrillas in the South.

Even generous estimates of the number of insurgents in Iraq conclude there are about 10,000 active killers — a fraction of just the irregulars in the south of Vietnam alone. Why then, when the numerical disparities are so much more favorable to our cause than during the Vietnam War, are we, rather than our vastly outnumbered enemies, lamenting the paucity of troops? That we have not secured the country may be due to the limitations put on our soldiers rather than their number; and to our preference for conventional rather than counter-insurgency fighting.

By the same token, Democrats are murmuring about timetables and “redeployment,” the current euphemism for flight, but they need to articulate exactly what they mean. We withdraw, and then what?

Are Americans ready to accept tens of thousands of refugees into the United States when those reformers who believed we’d stay and protect them are targeted for death? And what would we do if Turkey threatens Kurdistan with invasion once its patron has abandoned it?

And where, in a new region of jihadist ascendancy, are troops to be redeployed to? Other Middle East countries? What Middle Eastern illegitimate autocrat would want to host a retreating and defeated American army, a sort of modern version of Xenophon’s orphaned Ten Thousand? Indeed, the problem would not be redeployment to a nearby host kingdom, but just maintaining Centcom forces where they are now, once the Arab Street smells blood and adjusts to an Islamic victory. If IEDs worked in Iraq, why not also in Kuwait and Qatar?

Any gain from having more military forces “freed” from Iraq to face crises elsewhere would be vastly overshadowed by the far greater number of new crises that would soon arise — once Iranians, Syrians, Chinese, North Koreans, and the new Latin American Communists sought to emulate the successful Iraqi formula of defeating and humiliating the U. S. military.

Third, what does unbalanced reporting really mean? We all harp that the media — specifically, the wire services, network television, and the international stations like the BBC and CNN — all focused on Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, the carnage left by IEDs and suicide bombers, and the allegations against the Marines at Haditha, and neglected entirely the damage we did to the terrorists and Islamic fascists, or the singularity of seeing parliaments in places like Kabul and Baghdad.

But the important question left unspoken is Why? Was the unbalanced converge, in the case of leftwing elites in the American media, a simple effort to embarrass Republican policy, allowing more sympathetic Democrats to regain power? In the case of the envious European media, was it to take down the Americans a notch or two to remind us that we are not as powerful as we think?

Or is the bias a more general result of a Western elite so deeply conflicted about its own culture, and so fundamentally unable to define its own civilization, that it either doesn’t care whether it wins, or in fact wishes that the West lose in Iraq?

One can grasp that generic hypocrisy by reviewing all the journalists’ charges leveled against Gulf War I — too much realpolitik; too much pay-as-you-go war thinking; too much Colin Powell and James Baker and not enough Paul Wolfowitz; too much worry about stability and not enough about millions of poor Kurds and Shiites; too much worry about empowering Iran. Then compare those charges to those leveled against Gulf War II — too much naïve idealism; too much expense in lives and treasure; not enough Colin Powell and James Baker and too much Paul Wolfowitz; too little worry about regional stability and too much given to ungovernable Iraqis; and too little thought about empowering Iran.

The one common denominator? Whatever the United States does is suspect; and journalists without responsibility for governance, either for setting policy or for its implementation, are always brighter than generals, politicians, and policy planners saddled with it.

The truth is that wealthy Western elites in the media have evolved beyond worry over the basics of their civilization. They are so insulated, even after September 11, that they don’t believe there is much connection between liberty, freedom, consensual government, freedom of expression, and the everyday mundane things they depend on — whether excellent medical care, clean water, nice cars, neat electronic gadgets, eating out, or safety in their streets. A nuclear Iran, a missile-laden North Korea, a theocracy in oil-rich Iraq, an unleashed terrorist-sponsoring Syria, and an emboldened Hezbollah — all these could still never quite take away their good life, so strong is the assurance of their never-ending comfort zone that they could not conceive of ever losing it.

And thus the most vehement and angry critics find it possible, even desirable, to nibble away at their own civilization’s efforts, on the understanding that a loss in Iraq would be only an apparent loss. That defeat would not entail any material detriment to themselves, but surely would enhance their own sense of contrarian self-righteousness and self-worth, as they boldly caricature the very culture that so empowered them.

So yes, let us talk about sending more troops, or taking them out altogether, or cry about bad news coverage. But the truth is that, if they were given more tactical leeway to go on the offensive, we would already have enough soldiers in Iraq to win a victory that even a hostile media will have to acknowledge and enemies watching must respect — but only if we persevere here at home in this latest climate of renewed hysteria.

©2006 Victor Davis Hanson

Share This