September 3, 2003 | National Review Online

Don’t panic and don’t put sensitivity before common sense

By Andrew Apostolou

The murder of Ayatollah Baqr al-Hakim is undoubtedly a setback, but it is not a defeat. Ayatollah al-Hakim, despite 23 years of backing from the Iranians, had been willing to work with the Coalition, even if he was uneasy about the U.S. and British presence in Iraq. There are likely to be more such setbacks, and the number of Coalition casualties could rise sharply. The unpleasant fact is that the path out of the pit that was Saddam Hussein's Iraq is proving to be steep and arduous, but there is no choice but to keep clambering upwards. To do so, however, we must grasp just how terrifyingly high the stakes are. Above all, we must not give in to the panic solutions that are now being proposed as supposedly easy answers to avoid a hard fight.

The cost of failure in Iraq, or even of an indifferent result, is unacceptable. The credibility of the U.S. and Britain is invested in the future of Iraq. Falter and few will wish to associate themselves with our just war against terrorism. Show insufficient commitment, and our friends will regard us as feckless adventurers, full of words but with no stomach for the democratic cause that we so loudly champion. To forsake Iraq, to cut and run as the American strategist Edward Luttwak has proposed, is to suggest that we can only accept easy victories but are unable to absorb the wounds of war — the very stereotype of weak-willed democracies that encourages the terrorists and their sponsors to believe that they can win. Nor should we allow despondency to serve up precisely the humiliation of the U.S. and the pruning back of American power that the French government so openly hopes for.

That mistakes have been made in postwar Iraq is not in doubt, but that predicted disasters have not transpired is rarely acknowledged. The Coalition, like the U.N., planned for a humanitarian catastrophe when there was none. Contrary to some pessimists, Iraq has not fallen apart. Far from destroying Iraq's territorial integrity, the Coalition has restored it, bringing the Kurdish safe haven back into Iraq. There have been remarkably few revenge killings so far, thanks to the Coalition presence, and equally little of the predicted ethnic conflict. Hundreds of thousands of ethnically cleansed Kurds have not rushed back to their homes nor have they punished their Arab oppressors. There has been little of the reverse ethnic cleansing seen in Kosovo where the Albanians often dispensed rough justice to their former Serb overlords. But the Coalition has mismanaged the postwar media. The sad truth is that Iran was better prepared to broadcast to the newly liberated Iraq than the U.S. As a result, Iran's new Arabic television station, Al-Alam, was putting out anti-Coalition propaganda within days of the fall of Baghdad.

The main Coalition mistake has been to put sensitivity before common sense. The initial wave of looting was tolerated to allow Iraqis to let off steam. In retrospect, stringent curfews and the clear imposition of order would have been preferable. There would have been many complaints and fewer scenes of cheering Iraqis, but newfound freedom of expression would not have been confused with the right to steal.

The same criticism can be levelled at security arrangements, with the Coalition willing to assuage the feelings of others at the cost of their security. The minimal U.S. presence in Najaf was in response to the demands of Shia clerics that the Americans keep a low profile and be as far away from the holy shrines as possible. Having done what was asked of them, the Americans are now blamed for complying with the request.

The panic solutions make the same mistake, placating others first and putting the Coalition aim of a stable, democratic Iraq second. Ghassan Salameh, the deputy U.N. representative in Iraq, wants the regional powers to be more involved in Iraq. So does General Abizaid, the head of central command, who called on August 28 for more foreign Muslim troops to be deployed in Iraq. Yet this is precisely what Iraq does not need. Muslim and regional involvement is rejected by many Iraqis, who feel betrayed by the region and, in particular, by Arab countries. It is not as if these countries care for the Coalition's mission in Iraq. On the contrary, many are positively thrilled by U.S. casualties. Indeed, one well-known Turkish columnist, Mehmet Ali Birand, wrote on August 2 that “many of us seem almost to be glad that a few American troops get killed in Iraq every day.” Worst of all, Iraq's neighbors are clearly intent on subverting all that the Coalition and most Iraqis are working for. These countries would do better to send troops to patrol their own borders rather than the streets of Baghdad.

Those who regard the U.N. as a potential savior are similarly mistaken. A U.N.-led military presence is pointless unless the blue helmets are willing to conduct the counterterrorism operations that are needed to defeat the remnants of Saddam's regime and the Islamist adventurers. There is no chance of a U.N. intervention to fight these terrorists for the simple reason that the U.N. bureaucracy, like most Muslim and regional countries, still quibbles over the legitimacy of the overthrow of Saddam's regime. As for U.N. peacekeepers, all that they would do is patrol the streets of largely quiet southern Iraqi towns as the troops from the 22 other member countries of the Coalition currently do day in and day out. U.N. peacekeepers would not police Iraq any better than the Coalition, nor would they chase down the bandits who prey on travellers along the Amman-Baghdad road.

The price for this U.N. military fig leaf would be far too high: giving the U.N. a greater political role in Iraq. Again, many Iraqis, particularly the Kurds and the Shia, distrust the U.N. because of the warmth of the U.N.'s dealing with Saddam and in particular the corruption of the U.N. Oil for Food program. The U.N. does not want a federal, democratic representative government in Iraq — which is precisely what Iraqis and the Coalition are trying to build. There are enough unwelcome troublemakers in Iraq without the U.N. sticking its oar in.

Transforming a country terrorized by 35 years of brutal dictatorship and deeply divided by ethnicity and religion was never going to be easy, but was always a better option than doing nothing. To succeed, the Coalition must not succumb to fashionable panic. Our aims are true, our execution wanting. We must adapt, both in how we administer Iraq, by making Iraqis more responsible, and the way in which we fight the terrorists, using fewer troops and more intelligence. But there is no surer path to defeat than to rush into the arms of those who wish we had never toppled Saddam in the first place.

Andrew Apostolou has taught at Oxford and written for The Economist Intelligence Unit. He begins this month as the research director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.