Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

29 June 2006

Why "We" Just Might Win

“Our” victory over the Iraqi insurgency looks increasingly likely.  Of course it would be the Iraqi people’s victory, not ours.  That’s why the “our” is in quotes.  Yet with our continued help, victory over Iraq’s forces of darkness now looks possible.

The extermination of al-Zarqawi has both symbolic and strategic significance.  Like bin Laden, who remains at large, Zarqawi was a potent symbol for radical Muslims.  He showed the power of a single man against the machine.  With daring and cunning, he managed for years to elude the strongest and most politically sophisticated military force on Earth.

Leave aside his military tactics (unrestrained mayhem) and his lack of any political or social program to improve the lives of the Muslims whom he supposedly served.  For unemployed teenagers dreaming of glory, he evoked fantasies of individual power and revenge.  Of all people, we Americans should understand the force of his kind of story.  It is the same force that made legends of Jesse James and Billy the Kid.

Now Zarqawi is dead, ignominiously crushed under piles of rubble created by two 500-pound bombs.  Radical Muslims may call him a “martyr,” but for what?  Did he accomplish anything besides murdering hundreds of anonymous innocents?  Was he a pious man?  Was he holy?  Did he appeal to people’s better instincts, whether under Islam or any other source of moral inspiration?  As Muslims reflect on his legacy—-a pile of corpses and vicious sectarian hatred, nothing more—-many will look elsewhere for role models.

Zarqawi’s extermination is no less important strategically.  Having lived under a dictator for three decades, Iraqis became accustomed to resolving differences with bullets and bombs.  Yet they still know how to bargain.  Over the past year, a number of Sunni tribal sheiks sought to make deals.  Zarqawi stopped them by assassinating them.  Now that he is gone, the remaining sheiks will be less intimidated, and bargaining will resume.

The second reason why Zarqawi’s death is strategically important is that it undermines his chief tactics: indiscriminately killing innocent civilians and fomenting sectarian war.  Because those tactics make little military or political sense, every ethnic group will have at least a few people strongly opposed to them.  All it takes is one person with the outrage and guts to turn informer, and our superb military forces will do the rest.  Zarqawi’s death is an object lesson to like-minded thugs who think that Sunnis will support senseless, nihilistic tactics forever.

Although less certain, there is another reason why the operation against Zarqawi may have greater consequence than many now think.  Estimates of the number of “insurgents” in Iraq have ranged up to the tens of thousands.  But there are many kinds of insurgents.  Although no one really knows for sure, those directly involved in attacks against civilians and inter-sectarian violence are probably but a small fraction of that number.  If so, the intelligence gathered from Zarqawi’s hideout may have helped Coalition and Iraqi forces “roll up” a substantial fraction of the worst offenders.

When multiple, geographically dispersed attacks occur in a single day, Americans assume the existence of significant forces with widespread support.  But we forget how easy it is to create mayhem in a modern society.  The very event that brought us into the so-called “War on Terror” required only nineteen hijackers, with perhaps another dozen terrorists working behinds the scenes.  If so few people could wreak so much havoc in one of the most advanced societies on Earth, think what a few hundred could do in chaotic Iraq.  As thugs like Zarqawi continue to fall, we may be pleasantly surprised at how few of his ilk there really are.

Yet the strongest reason for long-term optimism is the new Iraqi government.  Its leaders and its actions are showing signs of great capability.

The first masterstroke was exchanging al-Maliki for al-Jaafari as premier.  What Iraq desperately needs now is fewer people able to recite the Koran, and more able to foresee, shape, and (when necessary) avoid political and social consequences.  Al-Jaafari fit the former description, al-Maliki the latter.  In the long run, the switch is probably the most encouraging determinant of Iraq’s future.

The second masterstroke was appointing a Sunni general—a former Baathist—as minister of defense.  He appears to be a courageous man of integrity, having stood up to Saddam when doing so risked sudden death.  His appointment has the obvious advantage of encouraging trust among Sunnis that the new national army will not be turned against them.

Yet the general’s appointment also has another, more subtle benefit.  By making an appointment based on experience, courage and integrity—not ethnicity—the Iraqi government has demonstrated the beginnings of a meritocracy.

Sunnis seem to consider themselves the natural rulers of Iraq.  Apparently they see themselves as smarter and more capable than Shiites.  Now they will have a chance to prove it, not by repression and violence, but by striving to make Iraq a better place to live for everyone.  The more the Iraqi government can convince wavering Sunnis that it is indeed a meritocracy, the more the best Sunnis will seek to join it rather than fight.

Other acts of the new Iraqi government are also encouraging.  Al-Maliki’s program of amnesty for insurgents may get many to lay down their arms.  So might his government’s ongoing talks with Sunni leaders.  All that remains to cement a government of national unity is the will and the ability to disarm the Shiite militias.  Doing so will take both physical and political courage, because the Shiite militias are an important part of al-Maliki’s Shiite political majority.  Yet if he can do the job as promised, the new Iraqi government may succeed visibly, and sooner than anyone now expects.

So, for the first time since Saddam’s statue fell, there is cause for real optimism in Iraq.  Despite our awful bungling, the experiment in building democracy may yet succeed.

If it does, credit should go to Ambassador Khalilzad and our superbly professional military, which will have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.  Rumsfeld and the rest of our hapless civilian leadership, whose incompetence opened those jaws so wide, ought to keep their heads low.

Even now, the President’s constant pronouncements are counterproductive.  Slogans like “stay the course,” “don’t cut and run,” and “America keeps its word” may play well before Republican audiences at home, but to Iraqi ears they sound a lot like “we’ll be here a long time.”  The last thing our government needs to do now is convince a single Iraqi—-let alone a Sunni—-that we have long-term designs in Iraq.

John Kerry’s pronouncements are better, but not much.  His attempt to set a withdrawal deadline of July 2007 may be helpful in convincing some Iraqis that we mean to go.  But that deadline is substantively meaningless.  If events continue at their present pace, the Iraqi government’s success or failure will be self-evident long before then.  If Iraqi leaders as good as the present ones can’t make a go of it in another whole year, the cause will be lost irretrievably.

The best thing our government and military can do in the interim is keep a low public profile.  We will need air power and elite troops to take out intransigents that informers identify.  We must continue to supply training and equipment.  Our advice, both political and military, may be useful but should be given privately.  Unless absolutely essential, our regular troops should be kept in reserve, out of harm’s way.

At this point, we must recognize that Iraq’s fate is largely in Iraqis’ hands.  The Iraqi government seems increasingly smart, confident, and capable of doing the job.  We might recognize that reality by drawing down some nonessential forces.  Now would be a good time to start, when the gesture might aid both national reconciliation in Iraq and political reconciliation here at home.

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