May 12, 2004 | Scripps Howard News Service

A Winnable War – If Americans Don’t Succumb to Defeatism

In August of 1944, Charles de Gaulle led a victory parade down the Champs Elysees in Paris. What a clever idea that was.

De Gaulle had never been elected anything. Early in the war he had commanded an armored division – which the Germans crushed. Shortly after that, France surrendered. De Gaulle fled abroad and from that point on did not play a serious military role in World War II. 

But for the people of France, who had spent the war under the puppet government of Nazi collaborator Marshal Philippe Pétain, it was important to feel that they were being liberated rather than occupied by the Americans and British troops with whom de Gaulle arrived. 

Not learning from that historical experience, not having had an Iraqi Charles de Gaulle waving from the lead tank rolling into Baghdad last year, was probably a mistake. And it was hardly the only error made so far in what is popularly called a War on Terrorism, but is really a war against a loose alliance of regimes, groups and ideologies dedicated to destroying America and, indeed, the Free World. 

But that doesn't mean it also was a mistake to topple Saddam Hussein and release Iraqis from his genocidal grip. And only a “paper tiger” – to use Osama bin Laden's description — would preemptively surrender because of a few stumbles (e.g. Fallujah) and a self-inflicted wound (e.g. Abu Ghraib).

Who is now urging retreat? President Bush has reiterated his intention to “stay the course”– not quite the same as saying: “We will defeat the enemies of America and of Iraqi freedom.” His Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry, has agreed that we “can't cut and run,” but seems to contemplate dumping Iraq on the UN and tip-toeing away.

An undercurrent of irresolution is tugging at the feet of those washed by the Potomac. The cover story of the Nation magazine – a publication of the left, to be sure, but often a leading indicator of liberal opinion – instructs: “How We Get Out of Iraq.”

Rep. John Murtha, often described as a “pro-defense” Democrat, has called the war in Iraq “un-winnable.”

Retired Gen. William Odom, a former director of the National Security Agency, is appearing all over the media proclaiming America's defeat. “We have failed,” he says flatly. “The issue is how high a price we're going to pay. … Less, by getting out sooner, or more, by getting out later?”

To reach this conclusion, Gen. Odom has discounted the achievement of dismantling Saddam's reign of terror, mass murder, torture and wholesale theft of Iraqi wealth (with UN complicity, it appears).

He has ignored the renovation of thousands of Iraqi schools, and that Iraqi children now study math and science — not Ba'athist propaganda.

He has disregarded Iraq's new health care system, functioning legal and judicial system and the sudden blossoming of human rights, including free speech (120 newspapers are being published) and freedom of worship.

Oil production, electricity, infrastructure – in all these areas there have been astonishing improvements that Gen. Odom dismisses.

Yes, there also is the “security situation.” A year ago, American forces allowed thousands of Saddam loyalists to strip off their uniforms and melt away. That they would re-group and be joined by foreign jihadis is hardly surprising.

Indeed, among those who threatened such an insurrection was Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. In March of last year he was quoted by the Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir as saying:

“The problem is not the occupation, but how people deal with it… Therefore the solution is resistance.  This was the first lesson learned from Lebanon, and after that from the Intifada. … Today, the Iraqi citizen sees that America is coming and wants to occupy his country and kill him, and he is willing to experience for himself what happened in Palestine… I believe that the situation will be much harder for the Americans and the British.”

Knowing all that, couldn't we have prepared better?  Of course, but that preparation should have begun ten or twenty years ago. Myopically, at the Pentagon and in the uniformed services in recent decades, big careers were not made in “small wars.”

And in the 1990s, when terrorists were being trained by the thousands in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, we Americans were not expanding the Special Forces or improving intelligence capabilities. (The CIA phased out its intensive course in interrogation techniques in the 1970s; is that why private contractors have been employed in Iraq?) 

Even so, one year after the invasion of Iraq is not too late to make changes – to figure out what is needed to achieve success and escape failure, and begin the hard work of getting it done.

To his credit, Rep. Murtha says that if more troops were deployed, perhaps this war could become winnable. 

Scholar Robert Kagan and editor Bill Kristol make a persuasive case for holding Iraqi elections as soon as possible to get Iraqis involved in shaping their future.

Such respected Democrats as Senators Joe Lieberman, Joe Biden and Evan Bayh aren't ready to thrown in the towel. They understand only too well that the tactical blunders made to date would pale in comparison with the strategic error of abandoning Iraq to Ba'athist remnants and Militant Islamists – well represented by those who butchered Nick Berg, an American civilian who went to Iraq to assist the reconstruction effort. 

This is no time for defeatism. This is the time for Americans, Iraqis and other friends of freedom to work together to win what we should now understand is a real war against the most ruthless of enemies.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.