What it will take

May 09, 2004

CAN THE United States succeed in Iraq? Conceivably, it can - but not without hard thought and unusual candor. The first task is to define America's objective there. If the objective is not clear, success is not possible.

Most Americans were sold on the war as an action to eliminate Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Critics, including this page, suspected that the weapons were merely a pretext, but they were put forward as the main reason for regime change. The weapons aren't there. Their elimination can no longer be an objective.

Last week, Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense who was one of the architects of the war, argued that the actual objective was to prevent Saddam Hussein from passing along weapons that could still be built, or the expertise for such weapons, to terrorists. The dictator is now behind bars. If his regime possessed any forbidden materials, they have already been passed on to others. More likely, they didn't exist at all at the time of the invasion. In either case, interdicting them cannot be a rationale for the continuing war.

That leaves the "liberation" argument. Iraqis suffered terribly under a tyrant; his replacement by a democratic government will not only improve their lot but transform the entire Middle East.

There are three problems with liberation as an objective for the war. First, even its proponents concede that the American public would not have supported going to war last year on that basis. Second, Americans are unlikely to support a long and costly war if they perceive now that that is its rationale, particularly as long as Iraqis themselves appear to be ungrateful for the liberation. Third, the assumption that democracy can be achieved and that it will then radiate out from Iraq is just that - an assumption, with no clear basis in history.

American public support for the war - which is crucial to its success - must rest on the belief that American security is at stake. Americans will have to be sold on a counterinsurgency war that is designed to neutralize a threat to America itself.

This does not exclude a democracy-building effort. The two can go hand-in-hand - but they are not the same. But how can the threat to America be made palpable? It will require honesty from the Bush administration, an admission that by going to war in Iraq it has clumsily provoked and inspired violent extremists whose hatred for America, and willingness to act against it, surpasses even Saddam Hussein's.

How, then, can a counterinsurgency be won? It must have popular support in America, and, just as important, in Iraq. Optimists point out that during the terrible month of April, at least there wasn't a popular uprising against the occupation. That isn't enough. A passive population is all insurgents need in order to win. Only if the civilian population actively supports U.S. policy can the insurgents be effectively isolated.

Can that happen? Given the devastating scandal over the treatment of prisoners, it seems now to be highly unlikely.

Some critics argue that the United Nations should be drawn deeper into the political process and that security should become a NATO function. They are not so far off base, but there are a few complications: The United Nations is not a beloved organization in Iraq, and some U.N. officials are understandably concerned that it is being set up for failure by Washington. As for troops from other countries: NATO is already stretched thin, in the Balkans, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Army officers like to shock civilians by asserting that their job is to blow things up and kill people. That is, in fact, the case. Militaries are not designed to win hearts and minds; that's why the U.S. retreat from Fallujah may have been a good idea. A successful counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq cannot be won simply by killing off the insurgents, and the Bush administration's public contention that the job can be accomplished fairly quickly is just false.

It will take great patience and many years. It will be an American project, in fact if not in name. Americans should ask themselves if they are prepared for that effort. And if the answer is yes, the next question is: Can America win Iraqis to its side, given what has happened in the past year? Can the United States, in a word, succeed?

If the answer is no, it's better to figure that out sooner rather than later. Iraq has already complicated the struggle against violent Islamic extremism; there's no sense staying there if it only makes things worse. The question then is how to get out - and with as little additional damage as possible.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.