There’s an interesting debate brewing about what to do in Iraq, and it arrives just in time for a state visit by Iraq’s current prime minister, Iyad Illawi. The arguments here in the United States take place shrouded in a fog of almost perfect ignorance. (This includes me.) As a public service, I thought I’d pass along some of the major views.
Let’s start with an overview. Peak Talk features both skeptics and optimists about our prospects in Iraq. Belmont Club always has interesting analysis and Chrenkoff posts regular summaries of “good news” from Iraq – check the right-hand margin of his homepage. For an interesting daily roundup of world news, including stuff you never see in America papers, check out Rantburg. Finally, some interesting and underappreciated sites from Iraq: Iraq the Model (check out the September 15th posting, which offers a devastating rebuttal to the claim that the Arab world hates us) and the Mesopotamian. These sites give you a ground-level view you won’t find elsewhere.
On the pessimistic side, Andrew Sullivan, who believes in winning the war, thinks the Bush administration has wimped out. He posts on the topic regularly. Mark Helprin, Bob Dole’s chief speechwriter in the 1996 campaign and a beautiful writer in his own right, has a pretty hawkish take on the situation.
Finally, my take: I’m hearing from the region that the opposition is strengthening, not because Iraqis despise us, but because bad guys in the region — Al Qaeda, Iran and Syria — see an opportunity to whack us. In hindsight, the biggest mistake we made after April 9, 2003 was that we were too nice and should have treated Saddam’s inner circle more ruthlessly.
Terrorists are taking advantage of the fact that U.S. and Iraqi forces are in the midst of what amounts to a military shift change. Americans are handing military duties off to the home team, but the process likely will take a very long time. Meanwhile, the two parties are getting reminders that they have to act, and act decisively, against foreign fighters, Ba’athist holdovers and indigenous mercenaries. Sooner or later, for instance, pro-democracy forces will have to go hard after the terrorists in Fallujah, Baquba, Sadr City and elsewhere. They will not melt quietly back into the populace. We also need to understand that Muqtada al Sadr will continue nipping at our heels until (a) we are gone or (b) he has shuffled off this mortal coil. Victor Davis Hanson has written often and brilliantly about the humanitarian impact of savage warfare. In particular, he notes that swift, overwhelming victories crush the spirit of the enemy and save lives by shortening war and turning both sides unambiguously toward the business of making peace.
If we want to win hearts, we must suppress the murderous factions who are destabilizing Iraq through cheap terror (kidnapping, beheading, suicide bombing, etc.), sabotage, and propaganda.
We also have to put our money where our mouth is. Congress has appropriated more than $18 billion to the cause of Iraqi reconstruction. Only $1 billion has reached Iraq. Why? Two reasons: 1) Federal regulations designed to prevent fraud, waste and abuse also stretch out the timeline for moving aid through the pipeline. Would-be contractors have to file proposals, wait through comment periods, submit to audits, and perform other duties that take lots and lots of time. We have to make a choice: Get aid there quickly and accept modest fraud as the necessary price of swiftness, or accept more violence provoked by jobless and prospect-less Iraqi males. This links seamlessly with reason 2) Democrats have devoted much of their campaign to demonizing one of the few firms active in Iraq, Halliburton (article requires registration). The assault, which is demagogic and which has not been rebutted by the White House, sends a message to anybody who wants a piece of the reconstruction puzzle: Be ready to take hostile political fire, no matter what you do.
So things are a mess, but not a fatal mess. Just as no war plan survives first contact with the enemy, nobody can “plan the peace,” including John Kerry. The most important thing the administration can do now is to look at the situation with a realistic and unblinking eye and respond quickly to changing challenges and situations. If Team Bush gets defensive, it not only will suffer political damage but, more importantly, people fighting in Iraq will become hostage to the most damaging political factor of all: indecision.
Share your thoughts with Tony. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.