Remember that inspired 1994 flick Dumb and Dumber? If I were to make a movie about the Middle East today it would have to be called Grim and Grimmer—and it would be a tragedy, not a farce.
There hasn’t been a whole lot to cheer since the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and the elections in Iraq in 2005. In fact both achievements have been undermined in the past year by relentless violence on the part of anti-democratic militias—Hizballah in Lebanon and various Sunni and Shiite factions in Iraq. Lebanon is on the verge of a civil war (as is the Palestinian Authority) and Iraq is already in the early stages of its own civil war.
I am especially crestfallen to see how the situation in Iraq has deteriorated over the past few years. According to the UN, over 34,000 Iraqi civilians died violently last year, more than 36,000 were injured, and more than 470,000 were displaced from their homes. It is scant comfort to say that the violence is confined to four or five provinces out of eighteen. Even if that were true (and recent fighting in Karbala and Najaf undermines the claim), it would be like saying of 9/11, “What’s the big deal? Only two American cities were struck. Hundreds of others remained safe.”
I really, truly hope that Bush’s plan to send reinforcements and to place them under General David Petraeus—one of our most capable officers—can reverse the slide. U.S. troops should be able to increase security in those areas of Baghdad where they establish outposts and do active patrolling. In fact there are already reports that Moqtada Sadr’s Mahdist army is going to ground to avoid a clash with U.S. soldiers. The real challenge will be to make any decrease in violence sustainable in the long term—especially if we don’t have the political will to keep tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Baghdad for decades to come. Our only chance is to commit more resources to building up the Iraqi army (the police are a hopeless cause at the moment). But the likelihood is that the Iraqi Security Forces will come apart if we start to draw down our troops—as a majority of Congress seems to be pining for.
Things aren’t going much better in the rest of the region. From Afghanistan to Iran to Egypt to the Palestinian Authority, the forces of freedom seem to be in serious jeopardy. Everywhere despots are ascendant.
I realize that there are setbacks in any long-term struggle and that the war on Islamist terrorism will not proceed any more smoothly than World War II or the cold war. Still, it’s hard not to be a bit depressed at the moment.
To keep some perspective, I’ve been reading Field Marshal William Slim’s classic World War II memoir, Defeat Into Victory. It’s reassuring to read of the terrible setbacks suffered by the Allied forces in Burma in 1942—far, far worse than anything that has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan—while knowing that just a few hundred pages later all will be redeemed by the attainment of total victory.