Failure in Iraq is within our grasp, but success now seems out of reach. It lies ahead, somewhere, in a fog of war, religion, and ideology. The visions of success created by a hugely successful military campaign and the apparent birth of democracy — three elections, millions of Iraqis risking all to stain their thumbs purple — were a mirage. The mirage of success wasn’t reality because we — meaning the president — never defined success. He never spoke plainly to us about the ugliness of reality, which precludes success in Iraq unless and until the defeat of its terrorist-sponsoring neighbors occurred.
As quickly as it appeared, the mirage vanished in the failure of the Iraqi leaders to bring their peoples together, and in the persistent intervention of Iraq’s neighbors who want anything but democracy on their borders. The terrorist bombers who demolished the dome of the al-Askari shrine in Samarra last Wednesday brought Iraq to the brink of civil war. That Iraqis have chosen, for less than a week, to not jump into that abyss should comfort us very little. And the prospect of such a war should trouble us, but not much more. Democracy and peace among the Iraqi peoples is devoutly to be wished, but it is not an essential strategic goal in this war. It is still wise and prudent for the president to counsel patience but it is no longer enough.
Regardless of whether civil war erupts, we cannot abandon Iraq now, for to do so would be a strategic defeat in the larger war. William F. Buckley, Jr. cannot be blamed for concluding that “Our mission has failed because Iraqi animosities have proved uncontainable by an invading army of 130,000 Americans.” It is President Bush’s fault, because he has not performed as a wartime president must, to define the mission, chart clearly the course to its completion, and lead us to it. That brief flare of leadership that burst over us last fall has fizzled and died in the darkness of silence. At this moment, the president should be on our screens and in our ears to explain, again, what the mission in Iraq is, how he means to prosecute the global war on terror, and how we can unravel the mess that Iraq has become. The fact that he is not is cause for alarm.
His speeches, such as the one he delivered to the American Legion this week, merely repeat the rallying cries of the past four years. To repeat, as he did then, that we are going to win the war by ending tyranny and by growing democracies in the Middle East surrenders control of the outcome to religious leaders who reject democracy, who have no interest in freedom. President Bush cannot mean to do so, but if he does not, he needs to say what he does mean. We are still waiting.
IS THE PRESIDENT SO OBLIVIOUS to events that he doesn’t understand that he has set Americans adrift in an ocean of hostile media, leaving the formation of public opinion to the New York Times, CBS, the BBC and Alec Baldwin? Are he and his principal staffers so mired in the Dubai port deal and the everlasting Katrina recriminations that they are unable to realize how badly the President is failing? Is it even possible to wake him up to the job at hand? I fear not. As the months pass, the Bush administration looks more and more like that of Lyndon Johnson. Instead of setting and pursuing a course to win the war, it is only responding to the press-inflicted beatings it absorbs each day. The President should remember what Lincoln learned the hard way: that the media are the worst war strategists. Allowing the media to set the terms of the debate is a clearly marked path to defeat.
There is no point in rehearsing again what hasn’t been done to prosecute the war. We went into Iraq to topple Saddam and to begin the process of removing or at least negating the threat of the other terrorist regimes of the Muslim world. We succeeded in two key nations and then stopped. Our military is doing an awesomely effective job. But its ability to build Iraq has always depended on the will of the Iraqis to set aside thousands of years of tribal and religious feuding. And in this it is the Iraqis, not our troops, who are failing. The president reportedly placed calls to seven Iraqi leaders — Shia, Sunni and Kurd — on Saturday to ask them to calm the situation. All these calls proved was the weakness of America’s influence. Such calls don’t reach the people who have the most power: the religious leaders of the Shia and Sunni, who have vastly more control over the violence than the pols do.
We need to step back for the moment to assess where we are in Iraq, and reorient ourselves to what it will take to accomplish our original goals. It is for the president to chart our course. If he doesn’t, we don’t have one.
THE PRESIDENT MUST CREATE the solutions by thinking on two levels. First, in terms of our strategic goals, which are to defeat the enemy’s ideology and destroy his means of threatening our people and our interests. Second, in terms of the symbolism: the political meaning of our actions in the religious context in which our enemies exist. In the latter, we can strike at the enemy’s ideology and cut through the fog that shrouds the road to success not only in Iraq, but in the wider war. Symbols, be they editorial cartoons of Mohammed or the Askari shrine, are potent forces in Islam and on them power is built. To paraphrase an earlier Buckleyism, we need to immanentize their eschaton. To use religious symbology to defeat the ideology of the terrorists.
About 60 percent of Iraqis are Shia, and one way to ensure they don’t ally themselves with Iran is to provide them the means of sustaining the symbols of their separation. As tempting as it is to send the Navy’s Seabees to rebuild the Askari shrine, we non-Muslims can’t do that. But we can offer to deliver, forthwith, every block of marble, cubic yard of concrete, jack hammer, crane and truck that may be necessary for the Iraqi Shia to rebuild it themselves. Had the president sent that offer to Ali al-Sistani, the chief Shia cleric in Iraq (or had Mr. Cheney or Dr. Rice do it), our dedication to the independence of Iraqi Shia from their traditional Persian enemies would have been demonstrated powerfully. Sending that message directly to Sistani, and around the increasingly feckless Iraqi government, would be a powerful message to the latter that our patience with it is running out. It’s still time to send that message, Mr. President. Please do it today and announce it to the world tonight. Ronald Reagan would have done something like that, because he would have tried to reach around the politicians and speak directly to the people of Iraq. Speaking to Sistani is the best we can do, because he is the center of gravity in Iraq.
That is only one of many actions, large and small, by which the President can cause powerful symbolic effects in the Middle East and the world of Islam. It is one thing for the President to say we are not at war with Islam. It is another to act as if we are afraid everything we do will offend a Muslim. That is the European way and it, too, is a path to defeat.
EXERCISING AMERICAN FREEDOMS is one of the ways to preserve them, and in this the President should act personally. When he attends church services, why not stop to make a remark or two to the press gaggle that follows him? Some reporter will forget who he works for, and tell the world that the President said something after shaking hands with his favorite clergyman. And if Mr. Bush used that moment to condemn the mullahs who call for the assassination of the Danish cartoonists and contrast the religious peace in America with the violent intolerance of the Middle East, how better to rub the First Amendment in the faces of those who would destroy it?
Why not invite Danish PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen to the White House for a state dinner in his honor? How about sending John Bolton into the Security Council to demand a resolution condemning the Askari shrine bombing as a crime against humanity? Or ordering the State Department to list the Palestinian government as a terrorist organization? (Hamas has been so designated since 1997, and now that Hamas is the Palestinian government, this should be something even the State Department can understand.) Symbolic actions can have substantive effects.
Failure and success are equally possible in Iraq and in the wider war. But we cannot succeed unless the president is fully engaged. Today he is not.
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).