December 6, 2006 | National Review Online

Fight the Real War

Iraq is disintegrating, and no one knows quite what to do.

Some, like congressional Democrats, a growing chorus of disaffected Republicans, the vaunted Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, and departing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, think the answer is fewer American troops. Others, prominently including National Review’s Rich Lowry, aptly point out that the only stable precincts in Iraq (at least outside the Kurdish region, the war’s much ignored success story) are those that enjoy a high concentration of American troops. Wherever we see the political establishment’s preference for a light U.S. footprint, chaos reigns.

So the question naturally arises: Do we need more troops? Answer: For … what?

To his great credit, President Bush has firmly resisted the cut-and-run approach through all the cheery euphemisms the Diplomats’ Thesaurus offers for surrender — “draw-down,” “redeployment,” “phased withdrawal,” etc. The president knows that, unlike all the solons offering him advice, he will be accountable to history for the results.

He knows, because the enemy constantly reminds him, that we drew down from Lebanon after Hezbollah murdered 241 marines in 1983; a decade later, we redeployed from Somalia after the “Black Hawk Down” incident.

The result of such phased withdrawals? They bought us a more robust jihadist network, swelling with confidence and recruits because Americans didn’t seem to have the stomach for a fight. Because America appeared to be bin Laden’s “weak horse.” They bought us Khobar Towers, the embassy bombings, and the Cole. They bought us 9/11.


So, no, says the president. We are staying in Iraq until we win. Great. But what is winning? What is the “victory” we are seeking?

On this, there is no consensus. That is why Americans have soured on Iraq. History proves that the American people have plenty of stomach for a hard fight, however long it takes, if they understand and believe in what we are fighting for. And this, consequently, is where history will condemn the Bush administration.

Leadership, too often, has been rudderless. After 9/11, the president deployed our armed forces but told the American people the best thing they could do was go on with their lives — go shopping, lest the terrorists win. There was no sense of shared sacrifice. No stressing that the nation as a whole had a vested interest in facing down not just a relative handful of terrorists but a fundamentalist ideology, shared by millions, calling remorselessly for our destruction.

Our military, alone, was left to bear the burdens. The 9/11 attacks were left to speak for themselves … and they faded from elite memory in about the time it took for habitués of the New York Times’ West 43rd Street offices to forget those two tall buildings they used gaze on from their windows.

Perhaps worse, after rallying and winning reelection strictly because Americans trusted him more than Sen. Kerry to protect our security, the president went dark. From November 2004 until the middle of the following year, President Bush, leading a nation at war, was virtually mum on the subject. There were political reasons for this — there always are. We hadn’t found Saddam’s weapons; addressing the war risked reminding the public of intelligence failures and premature “mission accomplished” bravado; the administration wanted to use its pre-lame-duck months to focus on Social Security, immigration, and the rest of its legislative agenda; and so on.

On Iraq, the president decided his reelection meant he had already won the argument. But when you’re at war, and you’re the president, you’ve got to win the argument every day. If you’re not winning it, you’re losing it … and with it the public support essential to war-fighting.

So, facing down his critics, the president insists we will stay and “win.” The problem is: His vision of winning is a stable, democratic Iraq — something Americans would not have gone to war over in the first place. Sure, it is an outcome we should all devoutly wish to see some day. But it is not something we would have sent American troops to Iraq to die for, any more than we would send them, say, to Sudan — particularly when the case has never been made that either stability or democracy in the Middle East will make the United States safer.

The “more troops” enthusiasts want to stanch Iraq’s ever bloodier sectarian strife. But Sunnis and Shia have been slaughtering each other intermittently for fourteen centuries. The thought that we infidels are going to put an end to that is as foolishly presumptuous as the pipedream that we will anytime soon achieve “two states living peacefully side-by-side” in Israel and “Palestine” — the latter’s existence being dedicated to annihilation of the former.

There is only one good reason for American troops to be in Iraq. It is the reason we sent them there in 2003: To fight and win the “war on terror” — i.e., the war against radical Islam — by deposing rogue regimes helping the terror network wage a long-term, existential jihad against the United States. You can argue that Iraq was the wrong rogue to start with; but destroying radical Islam’s will and its capacity to project power is what the war is about.

Iraq is but a single battlefield in that war. It is not “the war.” Stabilizing or even — mirabile dictu! — democratizing Iraq is not winning the war. It is the overseas equivalent of rebuilding the World Trade Center. The hard reality is that war exacts a terrible toll and its fallout must be addressed. This is why we hate war and resort to it only in the face of greater evils. But cleaning up war’s unavoidable messes is not the same as winning.

Winning the war means taking on the regimes and factions that are waging it. That is what the president promised to do after 9/11. “You’re with us or you’re with the terrorists.”


That hasn’t been the way it’s worked out. The “victory” President Bush talks about in Iraq involves successfully propping up a Shiite-dominated government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. An Islamic fundamentalist, Maliki, in his 23 years of exile from Saddam’s Iraq, ran the “jihad office” for the radical Dawa party in Damascus — a party with deep, historic ties to Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, and which is suspected of complicity in the 1983 bombing of the United States embassy in Kuwait.

While our military protects Maliki, Iran, among other provocations, (a) arms anti-U.S. militias waging war against American and British forces in Iraq, (b) harbors al Qaeda members, (c) builds nukes, (d) threatens to destroy Israel and strike American targets, and (e) uses Hezbollah to wage a proxy terrorist war against Israel and, derivatively, us. Syria, meantime, (a) ushers foreign jihadists over its border into Iraq to join those killing American troops, (b) provides support and safe harbor for Hezbollah in the proxy war against Israel, and (c) works with Hezbollah to reassert itself — and crush the nascent, American-backed democratic movement — in Lebanon. Maliki, for his part, openly supports Hezbollah and draws the new Iraq into ever closer ties with Iran and Syria.

In the interim, al Qaeda is resurgent, establishing a new beach-head in Somalia even as it continues fighting in Iraq. The Pakistani government, meanwhile, has made a treaty with bin Laden’s benefactors, the Taliban, who now enjoy an autonomous region in Waziristan. That’s near the border with Afghanistan … where the new, American-backed government — having failed, in conjunction with NATO, to defeat the Taliban — has just struck a deal with a now-autonomous province (Musa Qala), resulting in the withdrawal of NATO forces while the jihadists are left untouched, fully armed, and assured of their steady stream of opium profits.

That is what’s going on in the greater war on terror while we talk about “winning” in Iraq. We are elsewhere either losing or not very engaged.

Iraq is a single front in a much larger war. If we don’t suppress Iran, Syria, the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Sunni terror funding stream in Saudi Arabia, we can’t win in Iraq, no matter how victory is defined. You can’t win if you don’t take on the forces determined to see you lose.

“You’re nuts,” I’m told. “You want to go to war with everyone?”

I’ve heard it all before. Some people point to Iran and say, “1938 all over again.” It’s a good comparison, but from my standpoint it is, at the very least, 1993 to 2001 all over again. We’re making the same mistake we made before 9/11.

No, I don’t want “to go to war” any more than you do. And if you say there are meaningful, non-military means to quell and depose our enemies, I’m all ears, albeit skeptical. Rest assured, though: the war is on whether you and I choose to acknowledge it or not. It was on after the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, and we put our heads in the sand for eight years — through attack after attack — until 9/11 forced us to take notice … although, it now appears, as little notice as possible.

There is a global jihad. It’s on, now. Like it or not. Rise to the challenge or not. You don’t want war with Iran? Fine. But never forget for a second that Iran is already at war with you.

Sooner or later, we are going to have to match with action the president’s ambitious post-9/11 promises that our enemies would be pursued globally, relentlessly, and until their defeat. Democracy promotion and regional conferences at which we pretend that the problem — Iran — may be the solution are not going to get this done.

If we’re shrinking from the greater war, of course our troops shouldn’t be sitting ducks in Iraq. If we’re not going to turn them loose against the forces that most threaten them, as well as the rest of us, of course we should get them out of there.

Won’t that give al Qaeda and Iran a crucial victory? No, it would make official the victory they are certain to win if we don’t refocus. Unless our actual, overriding purpose in Iraq is to crush al Qaeda and its sponsors — rather than hope we can delegate the job to the newly trained forces of a Maliki-led government — our enemies will have their victory. All we’re otherwise doing is running out the clock and running up our casualty count.

Wouldn’t leaving guarantee more 9/11s? No, because if we don’t rededicate ourselves to the original mission, more 9/11s are already assured. That, as we should by now know only too well, is what happens when you choose not to fight the people who are sworn to fight you.

“Death to America” is not just a slogan for our enemies. It’s a deeply held conviction, on which they are feverishly acting. Only when we are ready to take them seriously, when our leaders’ brave words are matched by determined deeds, can we win — in Iraq and, more importantly, in the greater war.

 — Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.