[VIEWPOINT]War may be lost in U.S., not IraqHow bad is the news in Iraq? Reading America’s great newspapers, especially the New York Times, you would think that Iraq is an unmitigated disaster, a Vietnam in the Mesopotamian desert. Yet, if you look beyond the newspaper reports, the picture is not as dark as the critics of the Bush administration claim.
To begin with, Vietnam is the wrong analogy. The main target there was the U.S. Army ― the foreign invader. In Iraq, the victims of the terrorists are mainly Iraqis. This is not a “war of national liberation,” it is, as Harvard emeritus James Q. Wilson rightly points out, “terrorism gone mad.” It is a war of about 10,000 insurgents against 27 million Iraqis who have shown over and over again that they prefer democracy to Saddamism.
They braved the snipers and suicide bombers to go to the polls in January. Ten million of them voted in the October referendum on the constitution, the most progressive referendum in the Arab world. Even more are expected to cast their ballots for a government on December 15. Another “vote” has emerged in the opinion poll. Two-thirds of the population think that they are better off today than under Saddam Hussein.
More than four-fifths believe that they will be better off a year from now ― which is a staggering measure of optimism. Another index of confidence is the stock market, which has been rising as quickly as real-estate prices. Millions of cell phones, new cars on the street and a forest of satellite dishes on Baghdad roofs signal rapid economic growth. The downside is a slower than expected pace of reconstruction, plus rampant corruption.
While the terror bombings dominate the headlines, few Western journalists seem to have noticed that the Shiite south has remained quiet and the Kurdish north suffers from relatively few attacks. The terrorists may not be losing, but they certainly are not winning. When the insurgents murder scores of worshippers during Friday prayers, they do not demonstrate strength but inhuman desperation. Insurgents who are on a roll strike at the symbols and structures of state power ― not at mosques. Those who kill their own civilians rather than foreign soldiers prove nothing but their insanity and impotence.
This madness is both a result and a cause of weakness. If those who pretend to fight in the name of Allah and national liberation can only murder the innocent, they obviously are not strong enough to hurt American and Iraqi forces. But the mass murder also weakens them politically. In survey after survey, Iraqis massively oppose violence as a means toward political ends.
And so, no matter how unpopular the Americans may be, the terrorists are failing in the battle that matters most ― in the struggle for “hearts and minds.”
The insurgents have not been able to close down the public schools and hospitals, or to intimidate a judiciary which is the Arab world’s most independent. Nor have they succeeded in paralyzing the oil industry; in fact, Iraqi oil exports are rising.
Let us not ignore another critical difference between Vietnam and Iraq. In Vietnam, the Viet Cong ― the force of the insurgents ― were but the spearhead, the tip of the iceberg. The real fighting was done by North Vietnam, which was richly supplied (and protected) by two great powers, the Soviet Union and China. Al Qaeda’s murderous bands, on the other hand, are essentially alone. They do get some help from Syria and Iran, but neither country would be mad enough to do more, thus risking massive retaliation from the United States.
So the glass is at least half full. However, it would empty out rapidly if the United States pulled out. Then, a real civil war would erupt, with the Shiites and Kurds taking their revenge on the Sunnis and splitting the country into three. An American withdrawal might even provoke a direct intervention by the Iranians.
So the real battle has now shifted to the United States where the calls for a rapid pull-out are rising ― even in George W. Bush’s own Republican Party. Mr. Bush would do well to listen to Senator Lieberman, a Democrat who was Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, who has just warned: “I am convinced [that] almost all of the progress in Iraq and throughout the Middle East will be lost if [American] forces are withdrawn faster than the Iraqi military is capable of securing the country.”
So, the war on terror in Iraq will not be won or lost in the country itself, but in America ― just as it was in Vietnam when the U.S. Congress suddenly decided to cut off funding for the South Vietnamese forces.
The problem, alas, is that Mr. Bush has failed to make a compelling case for America’s lasting obligation to the Iraqis. Moral leadership seems to be eluding the president; he appears indecisive and weak. America’s troops on the front line, the Iraqi people and the entire Middle East deserve better.
* The writer, the publisher-editor of Die Zeit in Germany, is currently teaching U.S. foreign policy at Stanford Unversity, where he is also a Fellow at the Hoover Institution.
by Josef Joffe