January 25, 2007 | FrontPage Magazine
Symposium: Iraq – The Challenge Ahead
FP: Bill Cowan, Carlton Sherwood, Jim Woolsey, Ralph Peters and Andy McCarthy, welcome to Frontpage Symposium.
I want to get your views on Saddam’s execution, but let’s first crystallize what our main strategy should be in Iraq.
Bill Cowan, let’s begin with you. What do you make of the Iraq Study Group's recommendations? And what, in your view, must we now do in Iraq?
Cowan: I guess I could best characterize the Iraq Study Group's effort as a noble endeavor, but at the end of the day it's political theater. People here in Washington from both sides of the spectrum will use whatever parts they agree with to further their own agendas. As a quick aside, I spent many years living overseas. From my own experience, if I wanted to influence events in a foreign environment I would spend most of my effort asking the locals how I could achieve my goals. I'd get a diverse range of opinions from which I could pick and choose, but I'd at least know they might be implementable and might result in what I wanted. In this case, most of the effort involved asking 'experts' here in the U.S. or in the Green Zone in Baghdad. Many of them are the same 'experts' who got us where we are now.
As to what we can do now in Iraq, I do agree that our options are very limited. One problem is that we are fighting an unconventional war with conventional forces, and it's probably too late to try to shift now. Historically, military might has never been the ultimate deciding factor in an unconventional war. It's about the people themselves – who they support, and how and why they support them. It's clear at this juncture that too many people support the insurgency, and conventional military force isn't going to change that. What might change it is jobs, the economy, social services, infrastructure, and the like. Those aren't the responsibility of the military, and the other elements of the U.S. presence that are responsible aren't doing well in any of them.
Finally, on the military side a more robust advisor program might help to some degree. But it won't help if the advisors are only at high levels, meaning battalion and above. We need young officers and NCO's out with the front-line Iraqi units, participating directly in the fight. That U.S. presence at the lower level brings with it intelligence, communications, and quick access to firepower. It also builds confidence in young Iraqi troops who see us engaged at their level, and it allows our military to help identify leaders within the Iraqi Army. Is there danger associated with a program at that level? Of course, but we did it extremely well in Viet Nam with great success. If we want to win in Iraq, we have to continue to take risks.
Sherwood: My opinions of the Iraq Study Group are not dissimilar to Col. Cowan's. Perhaps, our biggest differences rest with the intent, the true purpose of the ISG. In that respect, I am far more skeptical, perhaps, cynical.
The very existence of the Iraq Study Group signaled an abrogation of war-time leadership by the White House: the ISG's recommendations and admission, if one more is needed, that U.S. military operations are being driven solely by craven, self-serving political considerations.
Battlefield realties are irrelevant when command decisions are relegated to politicians devoted to compromise and accommodation, whose entire focus is the next election cycle or today's poll. They are simply unfit to make hard life or death combat decisions. Appeasement is their stock and trade, “victory” a four-letter word.
In that regard, the ISG report provides ample “political cover” for failed or absent leadership, both on the Right and Left of the political spectrum. Even some of ISG's more patently absurd recommendations will now be fodder for serious “public debate,” all designed to obscure the real and deeply rooted causes of the current situation in the Middle East — amoral, incompetent American political leadership and cowardice.
Historically, we already know the price that will eventually be paid in blood and national treasure, never mind the lasting damage to the America psyche, if we resurrect and follow the Vietnam template the ISG report surely implies.
But, who will be responsible for the genocide this time? Who will be held accountable for the millions of innocents slaughtered if our military is drive from the battlefield $ prematurely? What do we say to those we abandoned, who we betrayed with false promises of freedom and America's resolve to liberate them?
Will we again allow our political leaders to blame their self-inflicted defeat on those who cannot speak, Americans whose names line the wall of the yet-to-be-built Iraq War Veterans Memorial?
The same forces that caused the U.S. to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in Southeast Asia are firmly in play now in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Winning” is no longer the objective, there are only “outcomes.” And, those will be defined by political leaders and the media without regard for U.S. military successes, or, its capabilities to bring both conflicts to a quick, decisive close, even now.
Indeed, many of the same American political leaders in the forefront of engineering our “defeat” in Vietnam are at the controls again four decades later. Those paragons of self-loathing Americans everywhere, which include the leftist Senators from Massachusetts, are among the many who would revel in a replay of Vietnam. Their unvarnished contempt for our military is, perhaps, second only to their abiding admiration for, and, collaboration with America's enemies.
Doubtless, they've already made travel plans to Tehran and Damascus to negotiate with terrorists, as per the ISG's recommendations.
President Bush would do well to ignore the ISG and try something completely different. Put his political advisors on vacation and turn this war over to those in command on the battlefield … with only one order — “Win.”
FP: Jim Woolsey?
Woolsey: I see the ISG report similarly to Col. Cowan and Mr. Sherwood. The document doesn't present a coherent strategy. Most importantly, it's bizarre to treat Iran and Syria as if they are trembling on the verge of being helpful and promoting a stable Iraq if we will but talk to them.
I've participated in or led five sets of East-West negotiations between 1969 and 1991, and the act of opening negotiations is always itself a political act. Three and a half years ago when Iran and Syria were newly impressed by our having taken Baghdad so quickly it might have been different, especially if we had been reinforcing to stop the early looting. At that point if we had opened negotiations we would have been doing so from a position of strength and, with adequate forces along the borders, we might have got something useful in the way of commitments not to interfere in Iraq. We would have had to enforce such commitments, of course, but such Iranian and Syrian pledges could have been of some diplomatic use to us.
Today we would be opening negotiations from a position of weakness (it might have been different if the Israelis had done us the favor last summer of using their Air Force to level a bunch of Syrian military facilities instead of Lebanese targets). We would be pressed to pay Iran in the coin of easing our pressure on their nuclear weapons program and Syria in the coin of easing pressure against their interference in Lebanon.
We need to establish different facts on the ground, via some of the steps suggested by Cowan and Sherwood — e.g. putting advisors into Iraqi units all the way down the line, not just at battalion level — before we consider such discussions. Proposing negotiations with them now, and assuming that Iran and Syria want stability, is like the thirteenth chime of a clock: not only is it strange in and of itself, it calls into question all from the same source.
Peters: I'm about 80% in line with Jim Woolsey and Carlton Sherwood–especially in my skeptical reading of the Jim-Baker-made-in-Riyadh ISG report; on the same count, I must respectfully disagree with Bill Cowan (whose views I so often share): The ISG was not a “noble endeavor” in any respect, but a classic Washington default–when things go wrong, bring out the dead from the political mausoleum and let them pontificate.
Usually, this is just bread-and-circuses, pass-the-blame theater, but Secretary Baker demonstrated brilliantly how a veteran infighter with prestige and a personal agenda can hijack such a commission. I believe that Baker knew what his key conclusions would be before the group's first meeting and he artfully loaded the panel with respected (or at least well-known) public figures who, whether Republican or Democrat, shared one characteristic: Not one could claim Middle-East experience or contacts to rival Baker's.
Note that Baker also excluded retired general officers from the panel–even though we're in the middle of a series of wars. Baker didn't want anyone with uniformed military experience to challenge his views (Secretary Perry is a brilliant bean-counter, but no strategist). Thus, for all of the “79 theses,” I see this as Baker's report, from start to finish.
And what's the bottom line of that report? “Let's all go back to the good, old days of stability at any cost, of supporting the likes of Saddam and the Shah. Chuck all that human rights and freedom nonsense–bring back the Cold War clarity, when any thug would do as long as he was our thug. Trade long-term advantage for short-term quiet. Stability ueber alles!”
Of course, Baker and his generation gave us 9-11, playing into the hands of Islamist fanatics by associating the USA with oppressive (often monstrous) regimes. By artificially “keeping a lid on” the Middle East, they only delayed and intensified the boil-over. The Shah always falls; Saddam always turns on you in the end. Meanwhile, you've alienated the population and empowered religious fanatics.
Even Baker's proposal to embed 16,000 to 20,000 trainers is divorced from reality. To embed that many quality troops, we'd have to strip our combat units of their cadre of officers and veteran NCOs–crippling combat readiness. And Baker would withdraw combat units, leaving only the dispersed advisers and support units ill-equipped to defend themselves–an invitation to our enemies to encourage a “teach-the-Americans-a-great-lesson” uprising that could kill or take hostage thousands of our troops. Without combat power to back them up, our advisers would be a blood sacrifice to nothing. But, then, Baker's set despises those in uniform, as do most members of the Washington “elite,” who are, of course, far too important to serve, as are their children (personally, I think Barbara and Jenna Bush would look hot in Army or Marine combat uniforms).
On the positive side, Baker's infighting finesse ultimate wrought nothing. After all the fanfare, the elephant gave birth to a (still-born) mouse. No one in Washington takes the ISG report seriously at this point–it's dead. The White House was furious, key Republicans felt blindsided, the Dems were just confused (big surprise there, of course…)–and our military got another lesson in willful civilian arrogance. Really, just think about that: The great panel to solve our wartime problems didn't have a single retired general officer. Sure, several members had brief junior-officer service back in the days of the horse cavalry. But we all know that, for military problem-solving at the strategic level, you need people who've operated at the strategic level. An honorable approach would have been to ask General (retired) Eric Shinseki, the man who was right, to joint the panel. But Baker wanted total control.
He got it. But he made the classic Washington old-timer's error of failing to understand how dramatically the world had changed since he last occupied center stage. Baker's long ties to the Saudis (not least, financial) appear to have dominated the report–much of it's the Sunni-Arab-Wahhabist view from Riyadh, including the lunatic suggestion to tie Iraq to solving the (insolvable) Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is akin to arguing that Mexico's problems are made in Argentina.
So…the ISG report was an ethical and moral disgrace. And Jim Baker, the spotlight hog who never met a dictator he didn't like and who tried to convince a defeated Soviet Union to stay together, who tried to convince the Yugoslavs to remain together, who abandoned the Shia to Saddam and delayed protecting the Kurds…has finally got his comeuppance. His public failure should be welcomed by all honorable Americans.
And just by the way: The notion that insurgencies are never put down through military force is an urban legend that takes into account only the brief historical period since WWII (even then, it ignores many success military destructions of insurgencies). Over three thousand years, the overwhelming majority of insurgencies–including religious and ethnic revolts–have been defeated. And they've been defeated by the ruthless use of conventional forces. There is, indeed, usually a military solution–but you've got to have the guts to do what it takes to win. Our deficit doesn't lie in capabilities, but in the spinelessness of our leadership. Our country shouldn't rush into wars–but when we have to fight, we need to fight to win. We aren't being defeated–we're defeating ourselves with our political correctness.
FP: Thank you Ralph Peters. So let’s fight to win then.
But do we need not to be honest with ourselves about how we can win? Is the Sharansky thesis (that all peoples’ yearn for freedom) really applicable here, especially in terms of what has occurred over the last year in Iraq?
Is it really that foolhardy to start focusing more on stability rather than on “democracy” in an environment which has proven that the notions of individual liberty and the separation of Church and State are not, to say the least, looming that greatly on peoples’ minds? Is it that wise, in the context of this war, to try to introduce Jeffersonian principles into an environment where a high priority among many seems to be to submit one’s total being to a religious deity and to butcher one another over religious interpretations?
Or is it a failed military strategy that has facilitated the sectarian violence and if we had done things right, somehow, Sharansky’s thesis might have materialized into earthly incarnation?
McCarthy: Jamie, I’ve been skeptical about the administration’s vision of democratizing the Muslim world since its inception. I am not as certain as some scholars of Islam that democracy – in the modern, Western sense – is so antithetical to core Muslim principles that it could never take root; but I am persuaded it would mark such a profound change in a society committed to remaining culturally Islamic that we must view this effort as the work of generations – it is not a hocus-pocus function of a few elections and some vaporous constitution-writing.
That’s why I criticize the democracy project even though I share the ultimate view of its proponents that we must give young, impressionable Muslims an alternative vision – something different from a bleak choice between political dictators and religious totalitarians. Saying we have to make a choice between stability and democracy is a false dichotomy. Democracy (whether it’s achievable or not) should be our long-term aim, but stability is a necessary precondition for the transition toward a functioning democratic society – and it may be a very, very long transition depending on how much work must be done to sow and grow the prerequisite institutions and ethos.
Returning to our original topic, the Iraq Study Group, this brings two observations to my mind. They seem contradictory on first blush but I’ll make them anyway.
First, my presence in this august company brings home powerfully one of the chief failings of the ISG, alluded to by Col. Peters in particular. Though I like being a lawyer and have a great respect for the discipline that stems from good legal training, I do not for the life of me understand Washington’s penchant (or, for that matter, the penchant of our litigious society in general) to assume that every problem in life is a legal problem best addressed through study by panels predominantly comprised of prominent lawyers. The same flaw applied to the 9/11 Commission. With due respect to James Baker and, say, Justice O’Connor, why should anyone think they would have better insight about what is to be done in Iraq than Bill Cowan, Carlton Sherwood and Ralph Peters? Why would anyone crave the assessment of Vernon Jordan – to be sure, a quite accomplished lawyer – versus, say, an evaluation by Jim Woolsey, who aside from being an accomplished lawyer also has mounds of practical experience in the arenas of intelligence and foreign relations, two disciplines that are imperative to success in the war?
These are not idle questions. I am hardly saying there is no role for lawyers here. Fact-finding is essential, and it is among the skills of lawyering. But we lawyers are supposed to know that we are often incompetent to arrive at the facts without input from people with relevant expertise. It was a lot more important, in assessing Iraq, to have the insight of military, intelligence and diplomatic professionals than prominent lawyers. I assume when the president wants to know what’s going on there, he is not ringing up the Justice Department or the White House Counsel’s Office.
More to the point, much of lawyering is about conflict resolution in the domestic peacetime context. This necessarily involves compromise and consensus. National security, to the contrary, is not about consensus. It is about getting it right, since lives hang in the balance. The ISG was so obsessed with reaching – indeed, celebrating – bipartisan consensus, this was elevated above all else. But if ten people are asked what two-plus-two equals, and five of them say four while five of them say two, it is not something to be celebrated that the ten finally agree to say the answer is three just so they can reach consensus. And there is nothing at all admirable in their consensus if what’s at stake is life-and-death.
The second observation relates to this elevation of consensus over the right answer. The only way the democracy project or stability has a chance to succeed in Iraq and the greater Middle East is victory in the war – something the ISG did not mention. That means the war has to be conceptualized properly. I mentioned that this observation would seem contradictory to my first observation because, while I have national security experience, I am primarily a lawyer and I don’t pretend to have military experience. But I think the aims of war are political. The means, of course, are military, and I would not presume to debate this panel on them. But what we must try to achieve is accessible to the ordinary citizen as well as the soldier.
On that score, I just don’t see the “war on terror” as Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a much larger war, involving intersecting tentacles of radical Islamic networks – both Sunni and Shiite, often working together. The center of the problem is Iran , which has a long history of facilitating both Hezbollah and al Qaeda, the two most prominent networks. I find it simply astonishing that the ISG would look to Iran and its oft-time sidekick, Syria , as part of the solution in Iraq when they, in fact, are essential, implacable cogs of the enemy in the real war. In the short term, they are plainly committed to destabilizing Iraq. Whether the administration decides on a surge-of-troops strategy, or a strategy that embeds our military with Iraqi units, or what have you, I don’t see how Iraq can be “solved” without addressing Iran and Syria.
FP: And “addressing” Iran and Syria ultimately means regime change in both no?
Bill Cowan, we’re back to you sir. What do you make of the round table discussion?
Cowan: My first thought about this round table discussion is to express my gratitude for being here. Even if we don't all agree on every point, the fact is that we can get our thoughts out, debate with each other, and let the readers form their own opinions. Of course, it seems we all agree that the ISG report itself was a basically wasted effort.
To the issue of Iran and Syria, I think the real question here is why this Administration has refused to address them directly. For well over two years now, US intelligence has had detailed information on sites, locations, and personalities inside Syria who have been directly involved in supporting the insurgency and in the killing of Americans. Yet we've done absolutely nothing about it. For we Viet Nam veterans, it's absolutely reminiscent of the sanctuaries inside Laos and Cambodia, where the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese took safe harbor, stored massive amounts of supplies, and planned and launched operations into the South. The same is absolutely true of Syria.
Now, I'm not proposing sending US forces into Syria. But I would definitely say that we should have long ago trained some special Iraqi teams which could run cross border operations against insurgent-related targets in Syria. These would be Iraqis fighting against Iraqis, and the fact that the fighting was happening inside Syria would be a wake up call to the Syrian government. Nothing goes on inside Syria without the knowledge of Syrian intelligence. Our Administration knows that, yet we've done virtually nothing to abate the activities of those supporting the insurgents from within Syria. It's my belief that a direct line can be drawn from the death of any American serviceman or woman in al-Anbar province right back into Syria.
As to the Iranians, the Administration has been woefully slow to acknowledge the strategic threat posed by Iran's influence in Iraq. It's only over the past six months that the light seems to have come on. Yet most knowledgeable observers were harkening the call well over two years ago, while the Administration muddled along focused on the nuclear threat. Either issue should be sufficient justification to support regime change, yet we don't seem to have our own strategy or plan to support same. The fact is that over half of Iran's 70 million people are under the age of 30, and many are students involved in overt or covert resistance. There are at least six separate political resistance movements working against the Mullahs, at least one of whom wields considerable influence in Iran. Many of those involved in the resistance are routinely arrested, and still others are tortured and killed. Yet the Administration has steadfastly refused to take any meaningful action to publicly support the resistance groups, collectively or individually. Failing to do so obviates a powerful tool which could potentially threaten the stability of the regime and cause them to focus time and energy elsewhere.
In sum, as Jim Woolsey and others noted, the Iranians and Syrians could care less about discussing Iraq with us except in so much as it furthers their own goals and objectives. We have no leverage whatsoever with them on the issue of Iraq. And no one to blame but ourselves.
Sherwood: We can hope the Iraq Study Group report is dead-on-arrival for all the reasons cited by the learned members of this panel. In fact, in some circles the ISG report has already been eclipsed by far less publicized meetings between the President and military leaders who have proposed implementing key programs which proved successful during the Vietnam War.
Nonetheless, it's likely the ISG report will be resurrected many times during the upcoming Presidential election cycle to thwart and discredit any new Bush Administration military initiatives in Iraq. The laundry list of unrealistic, unattainable and just plain silly recommendations contained in the ISG report is manna from heaven for the Democrat leadership and their handmaidens in the Mainstream Media. It provides both with a near limitless supply of pie-in-the-sky objectives to argue the war is “unwinnable,” or, “lost,” even if it is won, especially if it is won.
That is the predicament President Bush finds himself in now as Presidential Politics, not national security imperatives, drive every decision, every action he takes regarding Iraq and Afghanistan. From a purely political, Democrat standpoint, the most egregious, unforgivable act he could commit is to find a military and political solution to end the war and bring a majority of our troops home before the 2008 Presidential elections.
As President Nixon learned during the early 1970s, Hell hath no fury greater than Leftist Democrats proven wrong, deprived of a Presidential campaign issue. When Nixon's Vietnamization plan proved remarkably effective, combat casualties plummeted and most U.S. troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, Democrats were outraged. Anti-war protest demonstrations in Washington and on campuses around country reached their zenith in 1971 and 1972, despite the fact the draft had all but been eliminated and less than a third of American troops remained in Vietnam.
Flummoxed by Nixon's successes in Vietnam, to say nothing of his unprecedented landslide re-election in 1972, Democrats in Congress were literally forced to engineer defeat, “the only war America lost,” by cutting off all military aide for South Vietnam. That little piece of treachery came two years later, in 1974, more than a year after the last American combat units were withdrawn.
Back then, Sen. Ted Kennedy led the efforts to abandon and betray our South Vietnamese allies and, in the process, steal the “victory” paid for in the blood and lives of American soldiers. Today, Sen. Kennedy proposes doing the same thing in Iraq. With Democrats in the majority again, and, Republicans cowering in the shadows again, his chances of succeeding and unleashing a genocidal bloodbath in Iraq are even better than they were in 1974.
In a very real sense, it's 1970 all over again. Like President Nixon, Bush is reviled by the media and demonized by Democrats. But, unlike Nixon, President Bush is no closer to finding military and political solutions to “his war” than he was two or even four years ago. Moreover, he has less than two years to find one.
While some of the military tactics used in Vietnam — embedding troops in Iraqi towns and neighborhoods, for example — may prove successful breaking the back of the insurgency, any initiatives that move the U.S. closer to “victory” in Iraq will likely spawn Leftist Democrat reprisals, including Congressional votes to cut off military funding and even impeachment proceedings.
In other words, no good deed the Bush Administration commits from this point on will go unpunished.
Realizing that, and understanding that success will only result in more vilification from the Media and retaliation from Congress, the President would be well-advised to show a modicum of the courage and loyalty the men and women he sent to Iraq and Afghanistan have repeatedly shown him. Simple put, he needs to begin acting like a War-Time Commander-in-Chief.
Presidential leadership in time of war, true leadership, is no path to popularity, as Lincoln, Roosevelt, Nixon and Truman all learned. But, when thousands, even millions of lives are at stake, the President cannot afford to be indecisive or, worse, yet, AWOL, as President Bush has been for most of the last four years.
Just once, many Americans, maybe most, would like to see their President show some spine, at least clearly identify who our “enemies” are and why we fight. That list should not only include Islamic terrorist organizations and sponsor-nations but Americans who have provided aide, comfort and encouragement to these cowardly butchers — terrorist's sympathizer turncoats in Congress, in the Press and on the faculties of many American Universities.
President Bush needn't throw these cretins in jail, as Lincoln did. But, just standing up and unmasking their true intentions — America's defeat — and the direct consequences of their actions — the brutal deaths of tens of thousands of innocent civilians and American soldiers — would demonstrate the resolve and moral courage expected of a War-Time-Commander-in-Chief.
That doesn't mean sending out Tony Snow or the Cabinet Member du jour to banter semantics with the Press. It's far too late for that.
If the President expects to win in Iraq and Afghanistan, but, more importantly, preserve that victory from Democrat skullduggery after he has left office, it will require his full-time attention for the remainder of his term. Anything less than a daily dose of reality to the American public, directly from the Leader of the Free World, over the heads of the press and Congress, will result in another Vietnam, no matter how bravely our men and women fight, no matter how successful they are in the service of their country.
There is still time left for President Bush to show himself worthy of the responsibilities entrusted to him by the American public. He certainly owes it to them and their children and grandchildren serving in uniform to begin acting like a war-time President.
A good start would to be for the President to repudiate the ISG report for what it is — a “road-map” for defeat and genocide in the Middle-East, a document only America's enemies, foreign and domestic, could embrace.
FP: Thank you Carlton Sherwood.
Jim Woosley, what do you make of the discussion? And give us your thoughts on Saddam’s execution and how it could impact the war.
Woolsey: My principal reaction is to keep nodding in agreement and smiling at the vigorous and graceful prose of my colleagues.
We have to do our damned best to win this thing, in spite of the history of mistakes in tactics and strategy. The stakes are too high to do otherwise — the whirlwind we will reap if we lose means that we owe it to the world and future generations to do everything humanly possible to avoid giving the Islamists the encouragement they will certainly obtain if they win.
So, double down. Add at least 30,000 troops, increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps, put advisers — our best — in at the platoon level, not just in senior positions, pick up the pace and rigor of training, put Iraqi special forces on the borders of Syria and Iran and help them kick the hell out of those who are infiltrating (and training and supplying the infiltrators), fight clear and hold, not search and destroy, in Anbar and Baghdad.
Right, winning doesn`t mean Jeffersonian democracy, but rather what Armatya Sen calls building on the society`s institutions of “public reason”. Some sort of federal structure with a fair, per capita based, allocation of oil revenues would be a good start.
Saddam`s execution seems to me to be a positive watershed. Admittedly from a Western perspective much of the trial was a mess (why did the Iraqis not put Saddam and the others in a glass enclosure so they couldn`t disrupt the proceedings as we did at Nuremberg?). But let`s look at the forest, not the trees. We didn`t take over the trial. Their new government tried him and convicted him according to their law; he had his day in court; he was found guilty on clear evidence, sentenced, and executed. This is a much better outcome than if we had conducted a far more professional trial ourselves — would that our deference to the Iraqis in this case had been matched by our having turned over more responsibility to them sooner in other areas as well. But that`s a subject for another day.
Peters: I certainly agree with Jim Woolsey that Saddam's death is an important milestone. It's not only crucial to further developments in Iraq (which are apt to be far less linear and predictable than the media hope), but his trial and execution also matter on a global scale–while they may try to console themselves that the U.S. is bogged down or has “learned its lesson,” the truth is that no dictator will sleep quite as soundly now.
Despite all the policy errors and practical mistakes in the occupation/reconstruction efforts in Iraq, I remain proud that the United States dethroned a monstrous tyrant and gave 26 million human beings a chance at better lives (whether or not they seize that chance and use it wisely is another matter). We finally defied the European traditions of diplomacy in which any thug can seize power and slaughter the innocent–as long as his violence remains within his “sovereign” borders. I've argued for years that the European-hatched idea of indiscriminate sovereignty for all states, no matter how oppressive, is one of the greatest cons in human history. The only source of legitimacy for any government in the 21st-century must be that it governs in accordance with the popular will and in the best interests of the people.
Which brings me back to your point, Jamie, as well as Bill Cowan's incisive observations about democracy in the Arab world. First, I believe that we have entered a new age in which the popular will cannot be defied indefinitely. More dictators and oppressive regimes will fall. The process will be uneven, frustrating, sometimes slow, sometimes unnervingly swift, inspiring, exasperating–and all too often frightening. A fundamental problem we Americans have is our assumption that the popular will equals democracy.
Well, the popular will can also be expressed by the German intoxication with Hitler (revisionism be damned, the Germans loved Hitler…) or by ethnic butchery or religious intolerance. Moqtada al-Sadr, unfortunately, expresses the popular will among an important Shia sub-population in Iraq, as does Hassan Nasrullah in Lebanon. So…we face an age in which the “wretched of the earth” will have far more say in their own fates, but we're not going to like all that they say. Even populations that choose democracy will adapt the form to suit their own societies (as India notably has done, and as Mexico is struggling to do). Neither Alexander Hamilton nor Thomas Jefferson are going to be role models for the democrats of the developing world.
As for democracy in the Arab world, I will admit to letting hope triumph over experience in my own calculation that, if any population in the Middle East could build a semi-functioning, reasonably satisfying democracy, it might be the Iraqis. I long have viewed the Middle East as so utterly dysfunctional that change had to be introduced from the outside–I still believe that, but have lost much of my faith in the appeal of genuine democracy to Arab societies, who are stunted in terms of psychological growth and crippled by dysfunctional values. And let me stress that the problem is not individual Arabs or Muslims in general–individuals can adjust and flourish when transplanted to societies such as our own. The problem is Arab social structures (and those in Pakistan and various other Muslim states deformed by strict fundamentalist interpretations of Islam).
It may, then, surprise your readers to find that, in the longer term, I remain soberly hopeful about Iran. Dealing with Persia–and it's really about Iran's Persian population–we're in a race against time. As noted by Bill Cowan, Iran's young population is sick of the rule of the mullahs–most Iranians want to rejoin the global mainstream and religion has lost much of its credibility for them (certainly, as a tool of governance). Will the Tehran extremists and Ahmedinejad's bring-on-the-apocalypse vision ignite an irremedial catastrophe before internal change can occur? Can Tehran's nuclear-weapons program be stopped? Will it be stopped? In the longer term, Iran and the United States are natural allies and, if the situation can develop organically, we will be allies again (if not necessarily so close as under the late shah). But, in the nearer term, the possibility of a regional conflagration–with nuclear weapons–could erase all desirable possibilities. If a cataclysm comes, it would be a tragedy on many levels, and completely disastrous for the Middle East.
One respect in which I diverge from some of the comments made above is that I see Sunni Islam as perverted by the Saudis/Wahhabis/Salafists as more dangerous to the West than Shia Islam has been or will be; furthermore, although the theocratic regime's excesses have obscured it, Persians actually have a robust civilization, while the Arabs have only decayed memories of a civilization (in the case of the Saudis, not even memories). Iran is already a good part of the way through the process of trying out religious rule, suffering under it, then ultimately abandoning it. In other words, Iran is ahead of the Arab states developmentally, although it's obscured by current tensions. I'm afraid that–in this age of the popular will–Arab peoples are going to insist on trying theocratic rule and learning for themselves how miserable it is.
One wishes that we could simply turn away from the Middle East and let it rot–yet, we learned on 9-11 that the Middle East is determined to come to us. So we're in this fight, like it or not. I only wish we were fighting to win. But that's a subject for another discussion.
Meanwhile, there's some good news–unpersuaded by the Western cult of negotiations (our great superstition), the Ethiopian government applied blunt and unrestrained military power to the Islamist regime in Somalia. And it worked. Yes, the Islamic Courts Union will now turn to terrorism–but better to have Muslim terrorists struggling to regain power than to have them ruling in a capital city. So the New Year did start off with some good news.
FP: Well, let’s make fighting to win a subject for the final part of this discussion.
Andy McCarthy, your take on the others’ comments, Saddam’s execution and on fighting to win?
McCarthy: Saddam’s execution is an important development, albeit not nearly as important as his being toppled. As long as he continued to live, he was a destabilizing factor, and thus his elimination was necessary, though far from sufficient, to stabilizing Iraq.
I can’t help but be amused by the hand-wringing from the press and the commentariat over the manner in which the death penalty was meted out. This is the most naïve kind of wishful thinking and transference. It is reflective of the fact that many devotees of the democracy project have insufficient respect for how profound a cultural shift democracy is, and thus fantasize that mere elections signal the adoption Western notions of equality and procedural due process.
The popular elections in Iraq were not a cultural shift but simply the most efficient means by which the overwhelming majority bloc, the Shiites, were able to assume power. The particular Shiites we are talking about here — led primarily by the Dawa and SCIRI parties — are Islamic fundamentalists who were brutalized by Saddam for a quarter-century, took custody of him for only about an hour and only for the stated purpose of putting him to death, and are neither particularly interested in Western notions of due process nor fastidious about the manner in which their enemies die. Under those circumstances, Saddam's execution – with the Shiite leadership disregarding American, Sunni and Kurd concerns about haste, and with some of Moqtada Sadr’s thugs rebuking Saddam in the chamber – was actually carried out with more decorum than it was reasonable to expect. As Jim says, the forest is more important than the trees in appraising the execution. But the trees here are a reflection of how painful the democratic transition will be … if it can happen at all.
I’ll close by saying we have to fight to win, but equally as essential as national fervor for the war effort (see Ethiopia) is conceptualizing the war properly. It’s a regional war – indeed, even broader than that. Iraq is one battlefield; it’s not the war. And we can’t win it until we start sending state sponsors like Iran the right signal – i.e., that the original Bush doctrine, “you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists,” is the rule of the road, and we are done with trying to buy them off and with relying on a diplomatic process that is a foregone failure.
FP: Carlton Sherwood, final word goes to you.
Sherwood: I couldn't agree more with the observations of the panelists: Saddam's execution was critical to any reconstruction and democratization process in Iraq.
There are many things Westerners do not understand about Arab Middle-East culture. One of those things is the belief in the mystical and mythical. For an entire generation of Iraqis, Saddam was thought to be immortal, omnipresent, the boogeyman in every closet who would exact a terrible vengeance upon those who doubted his power. As long as he was alive — even in prison –many still lived in abject terror that he would find a way to rise again to power and unleash a bloodbath of biblical proportions.
As distasteful and barbaric as some may considere the unauthorized recording of Saddam's hanging, it was necessary to assure the Iraqi people that, indeed, the Butcher of Baghdad was dead. Gone, too, are his mystical abilities for survival. In Dr. Phil-speak, closure.
Regrettably, we helped create the myth of Saddam's invincibility following the first Gulf War. Iraq's mass-grave-killing-fields serve as a stark reminder of the price for limited warfare, where military objectives take a back seat to political and diplomatic imperatives.
In many respects, it was a continuation of that policy, giving precedence to State Department initiatives over proven military tactics, that is at the root cause of the current situation in Iraq. If Ambassador L. Paul Bremer had not been given the authority to reverse key military decisions immediately after initial hostilities in the Fall of 2003, there is every likelihood the debate now would be how many U.S. troops should be left behind, rather than how many need to be added in Iraq.
Bremer's twin edicts to fire all former Baathists Party civil servants who previously managed Iraq's infrastructure and to disband the conquered, unemployed and still-heavily armed 300,000 man Iraqi Army, all but guaranteed the road to Iraq's recovery and democratization to be long and bloody, to say nothing of uncertain.
In 2003, when Ambassador Bremer pulled the rug out from under the military commanders in Iraq, Major Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne in Mosul, had already put thousands of former Iraqi soldiers and Baathists on the payroll, using millions of U.S. dollars found in Saddam's secret caches. Mosul and the surrounding territories were nearly violence free, reconstruction and pacification programs on a fast track. All that changed when he was forced to “stand-down” the Iraqi workforce.
Gen. Petraeus said then what should have been obvious, even to State Department pinheads: “Give someone a secure, meaningful job and paycheck to take home to their families, and he won't be making bombs or killing Americans and Iraqis.”
Today, the most encouraging news to come from the White House isn't that the President is considering “ramping-up” troops strength, but that Lt. Gen. Petraeus has been put in command of U.S. military forces in Iraq. Nothing could signal a clearer repudiation of Ambassador Bremer's disastrous policies, the only question, is: is it too little, too late?
For nearly the last century America has been singularly blessed with a brilliant and courageous military that wins every war; fatally cursed with political and diplomatic stupidity and cowardice that squanders and loses every peace. That is true of WWI which lead to WWII which lead to forty years of Cold War, including Korea and Vietnam.
While military success on the ground is only one component, albeit, an essential goal to the overall strategy in Iraq, with men like Gen. Petraeus in command, I don't worry about military “victory.” What concerns me most is what should cause Americans to lose sleep now: what will our Congress will do to undermine our military efforts in Iraq; or, worse, yet, how far Congress will go if their best efforts to cause a U.S. defeat in Iraq prove unsuccessful?
Saddam is dead and gone but the worst threats to Iraq's independence and freedom are far from being buried. Iran and Syria remain as potent threats, to be sure, but ask any American-Vietnamese over the age of 60 who the Iraqis need to fear most now.
FP: Bill Cowan, Carlton Sherwood, Jim Woolsey, Ralph Peters and Andy McCarthy, thank you for joining Frontpage Symposium.