Some 30 months after the removal of Saddam Hussein, an unspoken consensus is emerging about Iraq. The Howard Dean/Michael Moore/Cindy Sheehan fringe of the Democratic party so far has made almost no inroads into mainstream party thinking. Perhaps this new Copperhead movement to find political resonance has failed because most Democratic stalwarts — senators Kerry, Clinton, and Biden — themselves voted to remove Saddam. And these erstwhile supporters of the war can offer nothing much different on Iraq now except to harangue about the need for more allies or more multilateral/U.N. help.
True, most Americans are tired of Iraq; but they wish to win rather than withdraw immediately and lose the country to the terrorists. The odd thing is that the more the rhetoric heats up, the more both sides sound about the same.
The ostensible military advantage of having a larger U.S. troop presence to pacify Sunni hotspots was always outweighed by a number of other, though less immediately apparent, disadvantages.
The key to stabilizing Iraq has been to promote the autonomy of Iraqi security forces — impossible if they are ensured that 300,000 or so American combat troops will do their fighting for them. And in this type of socio-cultural war, a smaller foreign footprint is critical, since the last thing we wish is an enormous ostentatious American military bureaucracy in Baghdad.
The shortcoming was never the number of U.S troops per se, but our self-imposed straightjacket on rules of engagement that apparently discouraged the vital sorts of offensive operations that we have at last seen the last two months.
The lesson of Vietnam is that the south was more secure in 1973 without almost any American ground troops than with over 500,000 present in 1968. Promises of air power to support ARVN forces between 1971-3 proved about as viable as thousands of prior search-and-destroy patrols by American soldiers. It also never made sense to tie down nearly half of available American combat manpower in Iraq, at a time when vigilance was necessary in Korea, near China, and in other spots in the Middle East.
That the United States needs at least 4-5 more combat-ready divisions is not the same question as the wisdom of putting more American personnel into Iraq.
Even the Democratic leadership has made no move to demand a scheduled timetable of withdrawal, much less, Vietnam-style, to cut off funds for general military operations in Iraq.
Yet most supporters of the war do not want an open-ended commitment to Iraq either, with large permanent basing and perpetual subsidies to such an oil-rich state. So here too there is general agreement emerging about our goals as outlined by most of the military's top brass: in a year or two begin to downsize our presence in Iraq, ideally leaving behind special forces and elite units embedded within Iraqi units, backed up by instantaneous air support.
In the larger sense, with Saddam gone — he was the reason for America's 1991 build up in the region in the first place — our total regional troop strength could decline, contingent on the degree to which Al Qaeda poses less of a conventional threat than Saddam Hussein once did in this critical area. The departure from Saudi Arabia was long overdue, and few Americans wish troops to return there. Again, no mainstream figure is demanding either an immediate withdrawal from Iraq or an imperial build-up.
It is now popular to caricature the effort to prompt democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to encourage them elsewhere in the Gulf, Lebanon, and Egypt. We all know the homilies — "You can't implant democracy by force" or "There is no history of democracy in that part of the world."
Yet few leftist critics of the administration have advised not to pressure Syria to leave Lebanon, not to encourage elections in Beirut, not to hector Mubarak in Egypt about allowing fair voting, or not to engage in the messy work of consensual government in Iraq and Afghanistan. No Democrats are calling for a strongman in Iraq, or endorsing the general status quo in the Middle East. If anything, we hear the Orwellian refrain, "We should not be supporting dictators" — at precisely the time in recent memory that we are beginning not to!
There is a quiet but growing assumption that there is really not much of a choice other than to come down on the right side of history and support the democratizing efforts now under way. Freedom and the rule of law offer the best hope of undermining Islamic fundamentalism faster than it can subvert consensual government. Far from being a Puritanical, messianic vision of forcing Islamic cultures to follow a cookie-cutter American model, our policy of post-September 11 arises because most Americans are tired of giving their money to dictatorships in Egypt, or lining up with monarchies in the Gulf, or having autocracies harbor and bribe terrorists to turn their wrath against the United States.
To their credit, in past years Democrats were more likely to object to realpolitik in the first place, so it makes absolutely no sense now for them to criticize George Bush for doing more to end the old cynicism than Bill Clinton ever did.
Iraq and the war on terrorism?
The old debate whether Saddam Hussein was involved with al Qaeda is now calcified. Liberal conventional wisdom denies any such linkage since there is no firm evidence that Saddam knew of, or was involved in, the September 11 attacks. Thus most on the left ignore entirely that Ansar al-Islam was doing Saddam's dirty work in fighting the Kurds, that Abu Nidal and Abu Abbas resided in Baghdad, that Saddam openly harbored Abdul Rahman Yasin and Ahmed Hikmat Shakir who were connected to the effort in 1993 to blow up the World Trade Center and various anti-American plots, and that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi fled Afghanistan to the sanctuary of Iraq.
No matter. That was then, this is now — and there is no denying that al-Zarqawi is conducting al-Qaedist operations in Iraq, or that the sort of people who attacked us on September 11 are the sort of people now flocking to the Sunni Triangle and often dying at the hands of U.S. military forces. Everyone can agree on that.
The "flypaper" exegesis — that Iraq has become a magnetized burial ground pulling in wannabe al Qaedists — is widely dismissed as unsophisticated and yokelish. But we saw the same phenomenon on the Afghan border in late 2001 where the Pakistani madrassas thinned out as jihadists went over the mountains to the Taliban's aid — only to be bombed to smithereens, the survivors limping back to warn others to give up such a holy trek.
For nearly four years, debates raged in the West over the Patriot Act, supposed Islamophobia, and the sense that the war was never a war at all, but a cooked-up overreaction by Bush-Cheney/Halliburton/Fox News (take your pick) to further a corporate imperial agenda.
But after bombings and assassinations in the United Kingdom, Spain, and the Netherlands, the almost weekly arrests of Middle Eastern suspects from New Jersey to Lodi, California, few now deny that we are in a war with real jihadists, who are energized by an Islamo-fascistic creed that flares up from Bali to Pakistan.
Saddam is ancient history. The real war in Iraq is against al-Qaedists who behead, murder, and seek to turn any village they get their hands on into an 8th-century nightmare. Democrats may groan about the Patriot Act; ACLU liberals will occasionally cry bigotry against Muslims; but there is no longer any real debate that one of the tools of the jihadists is to repeat a September 11 on a larger scale through the stealthy terrorism of infiltrators from the Middle East. Better then to draw them out and hit them abroad than just play defense at home.
It is easy to be pessimistic about Iraq, given the media's constant barrage of bad news. But why then are there not millions in the street as in the fashion of Vietnam-era moratoria? Why doesn't the Senate move to cut off funds? Why don't the Democrats bring forth another George McGovern?
Moveon.org, Cindy Sheehan, or Michael Moore in the short-term may be useful stilettos to the Democrats. But most keep their safe distance from such blood-stained rapiers, since few know how Iraq will turn out — or what such razor-sharp groups and firebrands will say or do next.
If Iraq is a more lethal theater than Afghanistan, and appears the more unstable, then we should remember that Saddam Hussein was sui generis, and his warped country the linchpin of the Arab Middle East. Who knows what Iraq will look like in, say, 15 months, given that its liberation had about that much lag time after the fall of the Taliban?
On the horizon there are a number of events whose public repercussions are impossible to predict, although they may well enhance the efforts of democratic reformers. The elections of October will be followed by even more voting in December. For all the predictions of Sunni boycotts and subversion, at some point the wiser ones will participate — understanding that the insurgents are losing, destroying not the Americans, but their own country in the process, and that a constitution moves onward, with or without them.
Soon there will be a globally televised trial of Saddam Hussein that may well shock the Arab autocracies — especially when their unfree populations gaze on the most well-known and thuggish of the Arab illegitimate leaders, chained in the docket and demurring to a constitutionally-appointed judge.
Yes, America is divided about Left/Right politics and over occasional antiwar street theater. But on the major issue of the war on terror and Iraq, most critics have very few ideas of doing anything other than what we are doing right now. The result is a strange consensus that few speak about — but fewer still wish to undo.
Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online