July 6, 2005 | Scripps Howard News Service

The Enemy’s Strategy

Our enemies in Iraq have never won a battle against American forces. They hold not a single province, city or town. In fact, militarily they have achieved virtually nothing. So why is there a debate over who is winning?

Here's why: Our enemies in Iraq are not aiming for a military victory. They are aiming for a psychological victory, to be followed by a political victory. By littering the streets of Iraq with bodies, they mean to demoralize Americans and cause politicians in Washington to begin to accept the prospect of retreat and defeat. 

To accomplish this, our enemies must rely on the Western media to broadcast the havoc they wreak. The media have been cooperative. “If it bleeds, it leads” is a rule that applies not only to local news. Encouraging developments out of Iraq are seldom photogenic.

While hardly admirable, this may be unavoidable. More difficult to fathom is why so many journalists have fallen into the habit of viewing suicide bombings, assassinations, hostage-takings and decapitations not as savage and unpardonable atrocities but as symptoms and symbols of American failure. 

In some instances, it's worse than that. On the “Democracy Now!” program broadcast on more than 300 non-commercial radio and TV stations, host Amy Goodman recently interviewed British journalist Patrick Cockburn. Both agreed that Iraq had become “the most dangerous place in the world.” 

Both placed the blame for that squarely on America shoulders – there was not a word of criticism for those doing the killing. On the contrary, Goodman and Cockburn referred to the killers as “the resistance' – suggesting a comparison between the terrorists in Iraq and the Frenchmen who went underground to fight for their country in World War II. Implicitly, they also were comparing Americans to Nazis.

It is a bizarre interpretation of Iraqi reality. There was never a Kurdish insurgency against either the Americans or the Iraqi leaders the U.S. has supported. On the contrary, the Kurds were among those Iraqis who welcomed American intervention with waving flags and open arms.

The Shia insurgency led by Muqtada al-Sadr has been effectively pacified for some time, and no new Shia revolt has taken its place. The Shia and Kurds together constitute about 80% of Iraq's population.

As for the 20% Sunni minority, their insurgency appears to be waning, too. This week, several senior Iraqi Sunni clerics were reportedly gathering support for a fatwa, a religious edict, calling on the faithful to participate in the political process – to vote in upcoming elections and help write a new constitution.

What remains is al-Qaeda. To characterize fanatical foreigners, under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as a “resistance” is beyond ludicrous. And the suggestion that al-Qaeda's suicide bombings are great victories in decisive battles is …well, it may be correct, if such terrorism is having the intended psychological and political impact on American audiences.

Zarqawi is confident that it matters little whether, on a given day, he wipes out an American Marine battalion or brings down a Baghdadi restaurant. Either way he gets film at 11, and many Americans will react not by being repulsed and outraged, not by reaffirming their commitment to defeat such barbarians; rather they will be sapped of their will to fight and succumb to defeatism. 

Zarqawi is literally betting his life on Osama bin Laden's perception of a pattern in American behavior in such places as Lebanon and the Horn of Africa.  “We have seen… the decline of the American government and the weaknesses of the American soldier, who is ready to wage Cold Wars and unprepared to fight long wars,” bin Laden said in a 1998 interview. “This was proven in Beirut when the Marines fled after two explosions …. and this was also repeated in Somalia. … After a few blows, they ran in defeat.” 

The purpose of war, according to the Prussian military philosopher Karl von Clausewitz, is to compel your enemy to accede to your will. To achieve that, Zarqawi doesn't need to win any military victories, he just needs to keep the blood flowing and to manipulate the media to broadcast the bloodshed, while judging the killers less harshly than those who fail to prevent the slaughter. 

By so doing, Zarqawi can exert a powerful psychological and political influence and perhaps succeed in bending America's actions to his will. That would mean that al-Qaeda could claim, not without justification, that it had become the Islamic world's first superpower.

– 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.

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