Commentary Magazine


Iraq’s Future—and Ours

On November 21, 2003, some minor rocket attacks on the Iraqi oil ministry and on two hotels in Baghdad elicited an exceptional amount of attention in the global media. What drew the interest of journalists were the terrorists’ mobile launchers: they were crude donkey carts.

This peculiar juxtaposition of 8th- and 21st-century technology was taken as emblematic of the entire American experience in Iraq—an increasingly hopeless clash between our overwhelming conventional strength and stealthy terrorists able to turn our own lethal means against us with cheap and ubiquitous native materials. How could we possibly win this contest, when an illiterate thug with a rusty RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) launcher could take down a West Point graduate along with his million-dollar Black Hawk helicopter while those upon whom we have been lavishing our aid cheered our deaths and ransacked the corpses?

In an extensive, on-the-ground account of the post-bellum chaos, George Packer in a recent issue of the New Yorker lists an array of missteps that brought us to this sorry pass. We put too much trust in exiled Iraqis; we allowed looters and fundamentalists to seize the initiative right after the war; we underestimated both the damage done to the infrastructure by Saddam Hussein and the pernicious and still insidious effects of his murderous, Soviet-style government hierarchy. Mark Danner, in the New York Review of Books, relates much the same story, emphasizing our tolerance of looting and our disbanding of the Iraqi army as factors contributing in tandem to the creation of the Iraqi resistance, now thriving on a combination of plentiful cash (from looting and prewar caches) and a surplus of weaponry and manpower (from the defunct army).

Both authors make good points, including about American naiveté and unpreparedness. But lacking in these bleak analyses of failures and setbacks are crucial and complicating elements, with the result that the overall picture they draw is both distorted as to the present and seriously misleading with regard to the future.

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II

It is a genuine cause of lament that many American lives have been lost in what should have been an uncontested peace since the war ended in April. But let us begin by putting the matter in perspective. The reconstruction of Iraq is proceeding well: electrical power, oil production, everyday commerce, and schooling are all in better shape than they were under Saddam Hussein. More saliently, none of the biblical calamities confidently anticipated by critics of the March invasion has yet materialized. Those prophecies of Armageddon featured thousands of combatants killed, hundreds of oil wells set afire, mass starvation, millions festering in refugee camps, polluted waters in the Gulf, “moderate” Arab governments toppled, the “Arab street” in a rage, and a wave of 9/11-style terror loosed upon the United States.

We are an impatient people. In part, no doubt, our restlessness is a byproduct of our own unprecedented ease and affluence. Barbarians over the hills do not descend to kill us; no diseases wipe out our children by the millions; not starvation but obesity is more likely to do us in. Since we are so rich and so powerful, why is it, we naturally wonder, that we cannot simply and quickly call into being a secure, orderly, prosperous Iraq, a benign Islamic version of a New England township? What incompetence, or worse, lies behind our failure even to seize Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein?

But Iraq is not Middlebury or Amherst—and it will not be for another century. What is truly astonishing is not our inability in six months to create an Arab utopia, but the sheer audacity of our endeavor to send our liberating troops into the heart of an ancient and deeply chauvinistic culture that over the past decades had reduced itself to utter ruin. Saddam Hussein and his sons spent those decades gassing their own people, conducting maniacal wars against Iran and Kuwait, launching missiles into Israel and Saudi Arabia, despoiling the Mesopotamian wetlands and driving out the marsh people, and systematically murdering hundreds of thousands of innocents. Real progress would have meant anything even marginally better than this non-ending nightmare, let alone what we have already achieved in Iraq.

Nor did Saddam Hussein and his sons kill without help. After traveling 7,000 miles to dispose of him, we were confronted by his legacy—a society containing tens of thousands of Baathists with blood on their hands, 100,000 felons recently released from Saddam’s prisons, and millions more who for decades took solace in a species of national pride founded on butchery and plunder. After a mere seven months, are we to be blamed for having failed magically to rehabilitate such people? Should we instead have imprisoned them en masse, tried them, shot them, exiled them?

Going into the heart of Mesopotamia, American troops passed Iraqi palaces with historic and often ominous names: Cunaxa, whence Xenophon’s 10,000 began their arduous journey home; Gaugamela, where Alexander devastated the Persian imperial army; and, not far away in southeastern Turkey, Carrhae, where the Roman triumvir Crassus lost his 45,000-man army and his own head. Mesopotamia has long been a very dangerous place for Westerners. By any historical measure other than our own, it is nothing short of preposterous that, in less than a year’s time, American troops would plunge into such a cauldron, topple the world’s worst dictator, and then undertake to introduce the rudiments of a liberal society in the center of the ancient Islamic caliphate—all at a cost of a little over 400 lives.

Now, however, after one of the most miraculous victories in military history, we demand an almost instantaneous peace followed by the emergence of a sort of Iraqi Continental Congress. We demand the head of Saddam Hussein, forgetting that Adolf Eichmann disappeared for years in the post-Nazi archipelago abroad, and that neither Ratko Mladic nor Radovan Karadzic has yet been scooped from the swamp of the Balkans. Our journalists describe the chaos besetting a society allegedly traumatized by American war that in reality is struggling with the legacy of its own destructive past. In Iraq we are not trying to rebuild the equivalent of a flattened Hamburg or a Tokyo among the equivalents of shell-shocked and thoroughly confused Germans or Japanese. We are attempting something much more challenging: to impose a consensual system upon spared peoples, who in liberation did far more to destroy their own country (the losses to pillaging ran to about $12 billion) than we did in either the war or the ensuing occupation.

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III

Most of the Baathists among our current enemies in Iraq chose to flee rather than stand and fight. The homes of Saddam’s henchmen were not all bombed. Their friends were not killed. Their pride was only temporarily lost—to be regained, evidently, upon their discovery that it is easier and safer to murder an American who is building a school and operating under strict rules of engagement than to take on Abrams tanks barreling into Baghdad under a sky of F-16′s.

Such are a few of the ironies entailed in our stunning military success, even if overlooked in analyses of the recent turmoil. And there are still more. Hard as it may be to accept, a rocky peace may well be the result of a spectacularly rapid victory. Imagine our war instead as a year-and-a-half continuum of active combat, stretching from the late-March 2003 invasion until the scheduled assumption of power of the Iraqi provisional government this coming July. Now suppose that over the course of this time frame, about 5,000 of Saddam’s hardcore killers had either to be killed, captured, or routed from the country if there were ever to be any chance for real peace to emerge. Somehow, under conditions of full-scale combat, one suspects the job would have been much easier.

Of course, we must not wish the war would have lasted that long in order to allow us freely to destroy Saddam’s remnants, but we must at least appreciate that short wars by their very nature often require messy clean-ups. After the shooting stops, the aid workers arrive; the hard-core, hypercritical journalists remain; and soldiers must build rather than shoot.

Here, too, a little historical perspective helps. The U.S. and its allies do not have a good record of achieving quick and easy peace after quick and easy victory. Recall our twelve-year, 350,000-sor-tie, $20-billion experience maintaining no-fly zones in the aftermath of the four-day ground phase of the Gulf war; the thousands of Europeans and Americans who are still in the Balkans after the seven-week victory over Milosevic; the ongoing international effort to pacify Afghanistan after the United States and its indigenous allies routed the Taliban in a mere six weeks. It is simply much more difficult for static and immobile peacekeepers under global scrutiny to deal with resurgent, unconquered, and itinerant enemies. If things are rough now in Iraq, it is because they were not so rough during March and April.

There are other, cultural aspects to our dilemma as well. Many Americans have come to believe that war is the worst thing that can happen to humans. It would probably not have been easy in 1991 to convince them of the need to prolong our “highway of death” in southern Iraq, even if doing so would have prevented Baathist troops from escaping to Basra and killing innocents; or of the need to bomb Serbians in Sbrenica in order to prevent them from killing women and children; or of the need to annihilate fleeing Taliban fighters to prevent them from drifting back into Kabul months later to shoot young Frenchwomen trying to feed the poor and hungry.

What such Americans have forgotten is that there can be much worse things than war. Stalin, Hitler, and Mao killed far more off the battlefield than all those lost in World War I and II; blood-baths in Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda transpired in “peacetime” precisely because there were no troops around to thwart the mass murderers. And then there is the lesson of General Patton’s “unforgiving minute”—that brief window when the enemy collapses and flees and for that evanescent moment can be hit with impunity and made receptive to dictated terms. Whether out of exultation at our stunning success or from a misplaced sense of clemency, we chose to forfeit that rare opportunity.

What is more, in the immediate aftermath of the war we disbanded the Iraqi army, not out of oversight or folly but on the idealistic grounds that we wished to build a force untainted by Baathist officers and ideology. Not only did we thereby lose an opportunity to corral and systematically audit 400,000 soldiers in their barracks, but to the shame of wartime flight we added the greater ignominy of peacetime irrelevancy, soon to be exacerbated by shared unemployment and poverty.

If some of the constraints on our military conduct have been self-imposed, others are functions of (nonmilitary) reality. These days, our officers have adjusted to the fact that they operate in a topsy-turvy world, one where human-rights activists are capable of being largely silent about 80,000 Muslims killed in Chechnya but grow shrill when an occasional house of a killer in Tikrit is leveled or the family of a fugitive Baathist mass-murderer is interned. A William Tecumseh Sherman or a George Patton would have pointed out that the Sunni Triangle could be pacified only after the majority of its residents came to understand the hard way that they had much to lose and nothing to profit by indifference to or complicity with the Baathists. Their uncompromising and straightforward tactics are not thinkable today, when military officers are understandably more spooked by the prospect of media stories alleging American brutality than by the enemy.

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IV

Not all of our problems are problems of perception, but at least a few are. What would have been the reaction of the New Yorker or the New York Review of Books had the coalition forces shot 500 looters to restore order and save the infrastructure of an entire people, or had we kept the Iraqi army intact to curb lawlessness, or had a no-nonsense provisional government of exiles ensured that the trains were to be running on time? Instead of hearing now about chaos and quagmire, we would be reading about poor families whose innocent teenage sons had been caught in crossfire, or about Baathists with dark pasts entrenched in the new military, or about the counterproductive American obsession with order rather than with pluralist democracy.

The reflexively critical gaze of the press operates all the way down to the tactical level, submitting every aspect of our military behavior to instantaneous and often hostile review. Partly in response to the biases of critics—but also in line with widespread utopian notions of leniency—we seek to mitigate the damage and death we inflict, thus inadvertently helping once again to render peace more deadly than war. Army interrogators who push or intimidate prisoners face court-martial or discharge, even though many of those prisoners have freely killed—and will again kill—hundreds of the weak and innocent. In the last days of combat, a few of our satellite-guided bombs were ingeniously laden with cement rather than explosives, in order admirably to curtail collateral damage.

But the more we seek to refine war by curbing the unpredictable and frightening nature of the violence that is the essence of that amoral enterprise, the more those inured to ferocity see our restraint not as magnanimity but as weakness or, worse still, a sort of decadence. (Our unwillingness to shoot looters was probably seen by most Iraqis not as a necessary indulgence but as fear of bloody confrontation—or as part of some farfetched conspiracy to induce Iraqis to run amok.) We have not lost confidence in our ability to conduct asymmetrical or unconventional warfare, but the task we have imposed on ourselves is no longer one of routing and eliminating terrorists and murderers; it is one of therapy. Confused by these mixed directives, our military is never quite sure whether it should be destroying or building; whether it should kill, be killed, or save; whether it should frown or smile. This can redound to the advantage of an armed and determined adversary with no such humanitarian obligations.

Post-bellum Iraq reminds us how much we are geared not to taking but rather to preserving lives—including, quite naturally, our own. Expensive communications, body armor, and redundancies in operational procedure are designed to protect soldiers from those who would blow themselves up to kill us. But the more money, time, and spiritual capital we quite properly invest in each of our soldiers, and the more precious each of them becomes to us, the more altered is the age-old and terrible calculus of the battlefield. One dead American causes far greater distress, not just among the American public but in the military itself, than the satisfaction prompted by the knowledge that dozens of Baathist murderers were killed in return.

No longer is our success in battle seen in a 10-to-1 kill ratio over the enemy, as at bloody Okinawa; or a 25-to-1 ratio, as during the 1968 Tet offensive; or the stunning 250-to-1 imbalance of the recent Afghan and Iraqi offensives, when perhaps as many as 10,000 Taliban and Iraqi soldiers in total were killed to our 450 or so combat deaths. Indeed, our military has rarely talked about the numbers of enemies killed or captured in Iraq, figuring, rightly or wrongly, that the public would either recoil from Vietnam-era nomenclature (“body counts”) or yawn because its sole concern was that we not lose any of our own. As the size of our military continues to shrink, with fewer soldiers piloting fewer and ever more expensive planes and tanks, these trends will only continue.

Finally, as our government seeks—often successfully—to wage war with as little upheaval at home as possible, it never troubles to tap the inner reserves of the American people, who might well rise to the challenge of a long and difficult struggle against those who seek to kill us all. We are thus caught in yet another paradox: the more lethal and adroit an ever smaller number of American soldiers become, the more detached an ever greater number of Americans can be from the wars waged in their names. Our very prowess at arms has blinded us to what may yet be demanded of us by our current situation, namely, the need truly to mobilize ourselves as a nation in a deadly war.

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V

What then are the lessons of this peace? We have been making major progress in both Afghanistan and Iraq, but both of these campaigns are better appreciated in the context of the wider war that started on September 11—the worst attack on American shores in our history. That worldwide conflict is far from over.

Events in Iraq do not occur in isolation. In Afghanistan, Israel, Turkey, Bali, Pakistan, Morocco, and elsewhere, an identifiable enemy is killing Westerners or their supporters through shared methods of assassination and suicide bombings. These Islamic fascists eat, sleep, and use their ATM cards in real nation-states ruled and inhabited by real people, whose attitudes and activities either enhance or retard the killers in their midsts. A series of polls confirms that millions of these people, especially in the Middle East, were not all that unhappy about September 11, 2001. Dolls glorify Osama bin Laden; plastic Twin Towers with planes crashing into them are sold as toys in the West Bank. Roadside bombs take the lives of American civilians seeking to interview Palestinians as potential Fulbright fellows—and a gleeful populace stones the Americans’ would-be rescuers. The Cairo papers print venom straight out of the mind of Joseph Goebbels. Our Saudi allies disseminate a more virulent hatred of America than do Iranians or Syrians.

All of this unmistakable enmity lends implicit support to the Baathist diehards who are now mining and shooting Americans in Iraq. And what message are we as a nation sending in return? That we give billions of dollars in aid to Jordanians, Egyptians, and Palestinians, that we have saved Muslims in Afghanistan, Kuwait, Somalia, Kosovo, and Bosnia, that we invite thousands of Muslims to emigrate to our shores to practice and proselytize their religion?

Yes, that is our message and our undeniable record. But the extremists and their passive supporters are already aware that the United States aids and saves millions of Muslims. They also grasp that we fear the bothersome mess of their terror and nihilism, and that historically our friendship has taken on the aspect of forbearance and then appeasement. While we publicly blame ourselves for our lack of sensitivity, they privately scoff that we are too sensitive. We talk of winning hearts and minds; they seethe not that Saddam was removed but that it was we who removed him.

If we are to be of service to the thousands of Americans whom we have asked to risk their lives in the alleys of Tikrit and on the peaks of Afghanistan, there is another, more deterrent message we might contemplate sending. It is that we ourselves are a bit unpredictable and now at last extremely angry, that without apology we can just as easily withdraw aid as extend it, expel visitors as welcome them, and become even worse enemies than we are good friends. Until we make clear to our adversaries the real consequences of their hatred, we will not be serving but subverting the accomplishments of our own soldiers.

What else might we do? To encourage triangulators like the Saudis and Yemenis to hunt down terrorists—as they have only recently begun to do, two years after September 11—we should remind them that America is not a neutral power, and not necessarily an ally. During the cold war, we accepted that so long as all of Eastern Europe lay under the thrall of Communism, the possibility of free trade, easy travel, or large-scale immigration was precluded. Similarly, so long as there is not yet a single democracy in the Arab Middle East, so long as many governments there pander to a virulent and hateful ideology of anti-Americanism, and so long as millions either ignore or abet the killers of Americans and Jews, why should our relations with these countries not lie under threat of severance by a new iron curtain?

In such a policy, everything would be on the table—all foreign aid, travel, commerce, immigration. Our ties with a great number of Middle Eastern regimes should be contingent precisely on their efforts to stop the implicit or explicit help they give to our enemies. With Syria and Iran, in particular, we are already in a death race to put an end to their murderous autocracies faster than they can prevent consensual government from emerging in Iraq. That country will never be truly free as long as there are thousands of terrorists in nearby Damascus and Tehran—something that President Assad and the mullahs seem to grasp far better than we.

Above and beyond this, we must acknowledge the nature of the wider war against terrorism, and of the dark times we are in. We of the postmodern age will lose many more of our own in this struggle, and must kill far more of our premodern enemies to achieve victory. The alternative to that depressing prospect is not a brokered peace but abject defeat, punctuated by more September 11′s.

Even apart from the toll in Israel and Iraq, all of the deadly terrorism since 9/11—against the synagogue in Tunisia, against French naval personnel in Pakistan, Americans in Karachi, tourists in Bali, Israelis in Kenya, Russians in both Moscow and Chechnya, and foreigners in Saudi Arabia, the suicide car bombings in Morocco, the Marriott bombing in Indonesia, the mass murder in Bombay, the killings in Turkey, and so forth—has been perpetrated by Islamic fanatics and directed at Westerners, Christians, Hindus, Jews. In this respect, our efforts are better seen in comparison to World War II than by analogy to Panama or Serbia. Over 400 dead is a shocking figure if we are fighting a Noriega-type adversary; in a war to rid the world of the contemporary avatars of Nazism and Japanese militarism, it is proof of our competence so far but also, alas, only a down payment.

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As for the Iraqis, it needs to be made clear to them that the country is theirs, but so is the responsibility to keep it theirs, and free. If, in years to come, they wish to avoid the embargos, no-fly zones, and periodic bombings of the past, then they must step forward now to establish a government that will preclude the emergence of a new Saddam Hussein or of Iranian-style mullahs.

How best to help them do this? In a perfect world, it might not be desirable, for example, to arm Shiites and Kurds to pacify the Sunni Triangle, but then many things in war are not desirable. Such militias might at least remind recalcitrant Baathists that thousands of Iraqis are angrier at them for what they did to their country than happy about what they are now trying to do to us.

It is another paradox, but inescapably true, that the more overwhelming our conventional battlefield superiority, the greater the need in the postwar period for different strategies to deal with killers and terrorists who recede when we bomb and blast only to reappear when we stop. Much of the hard military work that must be done in Afghanistan and Iraq should now pass from conventional soldiers to counter-insurgency units and Special Forces—numbering, let us hope, in the thousands rather than the hundreds. These, by means of intelligence-gathering and the creation of friendly cadres, are far better-equipped to perform the unenviable task of hunting down Taliban and Baathists, and to accomplish that task to the satisfaction rather than the chagrin of the local population.

This is not to deny the vital importance of maintaining daytime compounds from which American soldiers wearing Ray-Ban glasses, camouflage, and big boots can issue forth to exhibit strength and provide a bulwark for Iraqi police and militia. It is rather to recognize that there is necessarily something static and wholly against the American character in attempting to fight a defensive police action against paramilitary terrorists from fixed positions. The victory of last April will be largely preserved at night, by ingenious types who alone know how to win the hearts of local Iraqis as they kill the killers in their midst.

Contrary to myth, Americans can take casual-ties—but only if they know they are exacting a far greater toll on the enemy, and that they are on the offensive and on the way to overwhelming victory. This utter defeat of the Baathists and their terrorist supporters inside and outside the country is the task at hand. For good or ill, the peace in Iraq has been temporarily sidetracked from the political challenge of building a consensual society that will create the conditions inimical to both the ideology of political and religious extremism and its methodology of terror. But defeating Baathist diehards is no mere detour, and our efforts in that realm transcend the need to demonstrate to extremists and fanatics that they are in a war that they can only lose.

In an era of the greatest affluence and security in the history of civilization, the real question before us remains whether the United States—indeed, whether any Western democracy—still possesses the moral clarity to identify evil as evil, and then the uncontested will to marshal every available resource to fight and eradicate it. In that sense, our willingness to use unremitting force to eliminate vast cadres of proven killers, in Iraq and elsewhere, is a referendum on modern democracy itself.

 

—December 8, 2003

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About the Author

Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His “Re-rethinking Iraq: Nothing Succeeds Like Success” appeared in the April COMMENTARY.




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