Tuesday, October 24, 2006

"Killed By Wishful Thinking"

Col. Ralph Peters' column today puts a name to the vague fear I've had about Iraq for months--namely that strategic errors in the execution of the Iraq occupation have rendered the country ungovernable for the moment:

The administration ignored an ironclad rule of conflict in failed societies: A fraction of 1 percent of the population, armed and determined, can destroy a fragile state. If you are not willing to kill that fraction of a percent, the remaining 99-plus percent will suffer terror, massacre and chaos.

Our weakness of will and wishful thinking made Iraq safe for our enemies. They can walk the streets unarmed. We can't.

We did the right and virtuous thing by deposing Saddam Hussein. There's no reason even now to regret that act. But history will condemn us - justly - for the moral cowardice we revealed after the fall of Baghdad: We would not kill the handful of men who needed killing. Now they've converted tens of thousands to their cult of violence.

Imagine how different the situation would be had our forces been allowed to plan for a military occupation with rational rules of engagement, if looters had been shot and if we had taken on the militias as they were forming. Had we occupied the Sunni Triangle with sufficient numbers of troops and had we killed the Shia provocateur Muqtada al-Sadr as he began assassinating peaceful rivals in mid-2003, Iraq would've had a chance.

Now it's too late. Too late for more troops. Too late for the massive crackdown that would be required. Too late to restore the rule of law after we enabled the spread of lawlessness. Too late for the average Iraqi to live in peace.

It's up to the Iraqis now. And they appear to be their own worst enemies.

This is the essence of my complaint about the Bush Administration: Good idea, lousy execution. Iraq was the right place to start the process of transforming the Middle East, the right place to be the "midwife of democracy," as one Middle eastern opponent of Bush's Iraq policy grudgingly conceded last year.

But doing the right thing isn't the same as doing the thing right. We have clearly screwed the pooch in Iraq, and what frustrates me is that it appears we could have done it right. Some argue that Iraq wasn't unwinnable, but Col. Peters points out the other decisions that could have been made.

Imagine if we had made maintaining order our number one priority after taking Iraq. Imagine if we'd said a week after toppling Saddam: "Hey, Iraqis--we know you hate us and you're going to hate us no matter what. We don't care, because we know that if we can get you on the path of democracy, 20 years from now you'll never remember all the pain and unavoidable missteps of a military occupation. So here's the deal: We're going to kick ass, we're going to use violence and we're not going to be overly careful about it, because we want to get out ASAP and beating down everyone who even looks at us cross-eyed today is the best way for us to be out of here tomorrow. So grab your ankles and we'll get this over with as fast as we can."

People who are angry over Bush and the WMDs are missing the point entirely. Everyone made that mistake, and it was the right mistake to make. (The alternative--we do nothing about Saddam and a couple of Iraqi anthrax bombs go off on the NYC subway--was the unacceptable mistake)

What we should be angry about is that this war has gone so badly and NOBODY has been fired. That we are just now talking about "reviewing our strategy," when we should have done so after the riots in Baghdad, or after the first Fallujah, or after al-Sadr arose as a political force.

There is no substitute for victory. President Bush's unforgivable failure is his inability to understand that simple truth.