We are now on the cusp of emerging from our long and frustrating war in Iraq with success. That success is fragile and will require careful buttressing, but two years ago it looked nearly impossible. It will be incumbent upon the next president to preserve this success and convert it to an unquestioned victory.
On the Defensive
There were many reasons that success seemed impossible – and the daily press bombarded us with examples.
We were told that Sunnis and Shi’ites, having been enemies for centuries, were inexorably bound for civil war; that levels of corruption prevented any decent civil society from emerging; that the influence of Iran, al-Qaeda, and other terrorists was too powerful to overcome; that the presence of U.S. troops was engendering anti-Americanism; and that Saddam’s reign of terror had so traumatized the nation that no decent outcome was possible. All of it seemed plausible and the pictures of almost daily bombings and killings reinforced the seeming hopelessness of it all.
There was another reason that success seemed elusive. Many leading American political figures were determined to seize failure and press it to their breasts.
In 2005, for example, Representative John Murtha of Pennsylvania announced to great fanfare that it was time to bring all of our troops home. In remarks delivered on the House floor, he said, “It’s time to bring them home… Our troops have become the primary target of the insurgency. They are united against U.S. forces and we have become a catalyst for violence. The war in Iraq is not going as advertised. It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion.” Murtha, considered a foreign policy expert and even a hawk in some circles, suggested that American troops stationed in Iraq be redeployed to Okinawa.
Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska declared the Iraq war to be a “complete replay of Vietnam.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced in 2007, “this war is lost.”
Former presidential candidate John Kerry demanded that the administration provide a timetable for “transition of authority” in Iraq. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for a withdrawal, while failed presidential hopeful Howard Dean told a radio audience that the United States could not defeat the terrorists in Iraq. “The idea that we’re going to win the war in Iraq is an idea which is just plain wrong.” Eighty thousand National Guard troops should be brought home immediately, he advised. Twenty thousand troops should be sent to Afghanistan, and the rest should be sent to some unnamed friendly neighboring country to fight the terrorists elsewhere.
As opposition to the war mounted, there was wide agreement in Washington that those who supported the war were going to be held to account. Texas Representative Ron Paul denounced the “demented philosophy of conquest” that led to the perceived failures of the Iraq war. “The war in Iraq is a lead weight attached to their ankle,” chimed in Senator Charles Schumer of New York. “We are going to win Senate seats as a result of this war,” crowed Reid.
The current administration resisted the overwhelming political pressure to slink away from Iraq. However, it was also slow to recognize the need for a new strategy. Between 2003 and 2007, American forces were not providing security for Iraqis because too often they were pinned down in forward operating bases from which they made occasional armed forays to chase particular terrorists.
As military analyst and father of the surge strategy Frederick Kagan explained in late 2006:
We’ve been too incremental all along, because we’ve been focused on trying to maintain the lowest possible force levels in Iraq, which is not the way you actually go about winning any war, and it’s not the way that you go about winning a counterinsurgency like this.
Security is the number-one military task, and we have been prioritizing all sorts of other things over security. What we need to do is flood the capital with more American troops, partnered with Iraqis, and really commit ourselves to making this happen.
Thanks to Kagan and a few others, and to the White House and Pentagon for taking their advice, we are now seeing a dramatic and sustained drop in violence in Iraq. Guided by the brilliant General David Petraeus, a military strategist who will doubtless be studied by future generations of American warriors, the administration elected to “double down” in Iraq with a surge of troops. American forces also pursued a changed counterinsurgency strategy focused on providing security to ordinary Iraqis. Political factions, including Sunnis and Shi’ites, are now learning to discuss their differences. Shops and restaurants in Baghdad are packed. The oil is even beginning to flow again.
While an initial reluctance to take out Saddam Hussein is perhaps understandable, and while dubiousness about the capacity of the surge to change things might be explicable looking back, the response of many in Congress to the undeniable success of the surge since late 2007 is impossible to justify. Even after our top military leadership began to talk tentatively of victory, there were those who insisted that the situation was “worsening.”
As Senator Joseph Lieberman, the independent from Connecticut, memorably expressed it, too many of America’s politicians are “emotionally invested in a narrative of defeat and retreat in Iraq.”
Lieberman might have left off the words “in Iraq.” A hard core of America’s elite has never gotten over Vietnam. They suffer from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. In the opening days of the Afghanistan campaign in 2001, commentators and analysts on the front page of the New York Times were predicting a “quagmire.” Throughout the second half of the Cold War, a great many analysts and historians saw Vietnam everywhere they looked: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Angola, and even Grenada. Beyond expecting defeat in Iraq, some, as the earlier quotations reveal, almost seemed to relish it.
This is not to suggest that it was cowardly or unpatriotic to oppose the Iraq war initially. Reasonable people can differ about the wisdom of taking out Saddam Hussein – and particularly in hindsight, with what we now know about the weapons of mass destruction – the case for war was certainly not, to quote former CIA director George Tenet, a “slam dunk.”
A Commitment to Victory
What is not defensible is the position so many of our leaders took once we were committed to conflict in Iraq. As Napoleon said, “When you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna.”
Failure in war is the worst kind of provocation to one’s enemies. Al-Qaeda has a peculiar and twisted understanding of history. These Islamists actually think they defeated the Soviets in Afghanistan, even though history will clearly demonstrate that victory would not have been possible without American funding and weapons.
Usama bin Laden, one of the ragtag mujahideen fighters that benefited from U.S. weapons and funding, has since made clear on dozens of occasions his belief that bringing down the United States will be even easier. Why? Because he and his followers believe that they are Allah’s elect. Moreover, they believe that we are corrupt, soft, and easily intimidated. Our failure to respond to repeated attacks in the 1980s and 1990s gave bin Laden the impression that America was a paper tiger.
The war in Iraq has become the battleground against al-Qaeda. We are, at last, winning that war. But if we had not stayed in Iraq and shifted strategies, this victory would have been a defeat. It would have been a defeat that would have echoed throughout the world. The Islamists from Bali to London to Gaza to Islamabad would have felt a rush of adrenaline. Our friends would have shrunk from us to make their separate deals. Buoyed by victory against the full might of American arms in Iraq, the Islamists would doubtless have begun a new campaign of terror throughout the world.
It is not over. Our success in Iraq is tenuous and provisional. The next president must understand the importance of securing Iraq’s future. The defeat we narrowly avoided is still eminently possible.
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist, political analyst, and author of Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help.