President Bush’s plan — to surge another 21,500 American troops into Iraq and give the Maliki government another chance to do what Iraqis elected it to do — must be allowed a fair chance to work. The Democrats and their amen chorus in the media want to deny him that chance. But they lack the courage to do anything that might have the effect of stopping it. Amidst the cacophony of Dem voices deriding the president’s new plan there will only be symbolic votes this week, not any to block funding for it.
The Dems began with Sen. Dick Durbin’s response to the president’s speech Wednesday night. Durbin condemned the president’s plan as “escalation” of the Iraq war. “Escalation” is what we of the scribbling class call a “freighted word.” It carries the baggage of history, having been painted on thousands of protest signs and used in as many screeching speeches by the Jane Fonda-Ramsey Clark-John Kerry crowd in the 1960s and 1970s. “Escalation” is synonymous with their mindless, near-hysterical opposition to fighting and winning the Vietnam War. That Durbin chose it — and that it has been taken up by 60 Minutes and the rest of the 527 Media — shows that they are determined to produce the same result in Iraq that they (literally, some of the same people such as Kerry and Kennedy) did in Vietnam. The Democrats — courageous enough, so far, only to refuse to let the Cindy Sheehan-Michael Mooron wing of their party dictate action — won’t do anything to which responsibility can be attached. If Mr. Bush’s strategy wins, they can point to the terrible cost and ignore the gain. If he fails, they will likely take the White House in 2008. After that, they will have the power to lose the war however quickly and bloodily they choose.
Some of us remember the last time. In 1972, about to graduate from law school and head on to active duty, I attended a speech by former Secretary of State Dean Rusk, one of the principal architects of Lyndon Johnson’s failed Vietnam strategy. I asked him why we hadn’t mined and bombed Haiphong harbor in North Vietnam, the principal port at which Russian and Chinese ships unloaded millions of tons of arms and other supplies destined for North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces fighting us in the south. Rusk answered, “We didn’t want to widen the war.” Johnson was too scared of Jane Fonda and Walter Cronkite to “escalate” the conflict, so he refused to do what was necessary to win. But will George Bush?
The “surge” Mr. Bush has ordered is, at best, a mixed bag. It is not an escalation; would that it were. We have never employed anything near the whole conventional military might of the United States in this fight, nor have we employed the assets we have dedicated to it with sufficient aggressiveness to win it decisively. Mr. Bush’s surge depends on the Iraqis’ ability to live up to their part of the bargain, and that’s probably a bad bet. We have spent the last fifteen years giving Iraqis last chances. We gave Saddam about ten years and seventeen UN Security Council resolutions to live up to the terms of the 1991 cease-fire agreement after the first Gulf War. There was always the need to give him one more “last chance.” Nouri al-Maliki’s government was elected to make their unity government permanent by political compromise among the three main Iraqi sects, Shia, Sunni, and Kurd. They have utterly failed to do that, and at the same time failed to take on the Sunni insurgents, the Shia militia and other forces capable of extreme violence. This is their last chance.
History will probably judge the February 2006 bombing of the golden domed mosque in Samarra — one of the most revered shrines of Shia Islam — to have been the act that precluded success of America’s experiment in Iraqi democracy. The Shia militias and death squads — many of which are connected to if not part of Iraqi security forces — began an endless retaliation. Iraqi politicians, themselves connected more to sectarian rivalry than dedicated to democracy and political compromise, have stalled the process by which the militias can be defeated, oil revenues may be shared, and their “nation” reconstructed. It’s no wonder. There really has never been a nation called “Iraq.”
That struck me again as I re-read, after about two decades, T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The map of the Middle East in 1917-1918 shows Persia, Turkey, Arabia, Egypt and Sudan. There is no Iraq. The fact that Iraq was created later, encompassing rival ancient tribes, meant nothing to those tribes then, and little afterward. Nations that aren’t united by a shared nationalistic purpose are held together by despotic governments or foreign imperial force, not by lines drawn on a map. By dedicating ourselves to Iraqi democracy, we are trying to unite tribes around the idea of a nation few Iraqis place above sectarian and tribal loyalty. President Bush’s plan gambles all on the idea that those old loyalties can be subordinated to the concept of an Iraq that can govern, sustain, and defend itself. It is a very long shot.
In an interview with 60 Minutes, President Bush said that we will know pretty quickly if the Maliki government is going to keep its promises to help us pacify the Baghdad area, where about one-quarter of all Iraqis live. Their promises to end political interference with military operations, to provide their own forces to fight the militias — including the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr — and to push the political process to the necessary conclusions are all essential to success. There will be steps forward and back, but if the former greatly outweigh the latter there is a chance that the president’s new strategy can work.
George W. Bush is our president, and his choice now is to surge troops into Iraq and make a stand for democracy in the thirty-mile chunk of Iraq centered in Baghdad. Many of us would not have done this at all, and many more would have done something else entirely to deal decisively with Iran and Syria. The president has made a decision. He is entitled to a fair chance to make it work. Unless there is a catastrophic failure, we will not know in days or weeks. It’s at least a matter of months.
TAS contributing editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (Regnery, 2004) and, with Edward Timperlake, Showdown: Why China Wants War With the United States (Regnery, 2006).
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