Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Wednesday, April 14, 2004
Okay, I'm back. Struggling to catch up from missed time at work, and preparing for another trip to London starting Sunday night, so I can't promise to be the uber-blogger I was born to be. But I'll do what I can.

I wish I could say that sitting in shul on Passover miraculously gave me unique insights on the situation in Iraq. But the only special perspective I got was that of distance: I wasn't reading the paper regularly, wasn't logging on to the internet, and so I generally was out of the loop. So don't blame me that the whole place has gone to hell in a handbasket.

Hasn't it gone to hell in a handbasket? Yeah, this Sadr guy seems like a pretty lame character, propped up by his Iranian backers and generally unsupported by his fellow Shiites. Yeah, Fallujah has been simmering for a while, and now that it's boiled over we're actually offing the guys who've needed killing for some time.

But that's not the important fact. If anyone thought the Iraqis could wage brilliant guerilla warfare, they were giving credit where it was emphatically not due. No one should fear that we will lose a guerilla war in Iraq. What they should fear is not that we will lose, but that we won't win.

I'll explain, but to do so I'll need to digress and talk about Israel. For coming on 60 years, the Israeli Defense Forces have been beating Arab armies and Arab guerillas alike pretty much every time they have faced each other. They won in 1948 (except in the battle for Jerusalem against the Arab Legion, and that was a uniquely British-led and British-trained force). They won in 1956 in the Sinai and, spectacularly, in 1967 on three fronts. They were caught off-balance in 1973 and, in truth, that war can't be easily scored because each side was saved from utter disaster by timely superpower intervention, but the best that can be said for the Arab side is that they achieved strategic surprise when they should not have, and that the Jewish state has never had the margin of error to survive a battlefield loss. Once they recovered from that initial blow, though, their recovery was absolute and their victory total.

But Israel also won the Lebanon war, usually scored a loss. It drove the PLO out of the country, and could have eliminated Yasser Arafat if President Reagan had permitted it. It also crushed the first (not terribly violent) intifadeh. It also was successful in Operation Defensive Shield, retaking essentially all of the Palestinian territories in Judea and Samaria and making Arafat a prisoner in his compound, where he could have been arrested or assassinated at will. You cannot name a military objective that Israel has set for itself that it has failed to achieve.

What it has failed to achieve are its political objectives. Yes, Israel expelled the PLO from Lebanon. But then it couldn't figure out how to get out, and now it faces Hezbollah across that border. Yes, Israel crushed the Palestinians, but they can't seem to crush them enough to get them to stop sending suicide bombers into Israeli shopping malls. Israel has won essentially every battle, but it can't seem to win the war. Their Arab opponents are, or should be, dead. But they won't lie down.

Israel's fundamental objective is peace within defensible borders. Yes, there is a substantial and politically powerful minority that seeks control of the historic Judean heartland for ideological reasons, but they have never commanded a majority among Israeli Jews. What Israel has been fighting for in its various wars is, fundamentally, peace.

But peace is not something that can be achieved on the battlefield. Peace is something that requires action on your enemy's part. And, in general, Israel's antagonists - particularly the Palestinian Arabs - have been unwilling to take that action.

The fundamental objective of the Oslo accords from the Israeli realist perspective - and Rabin was a realist - was to extricate Israel from a no-win situation in the territories. Yes, Israel could hold on by force, but Israel could never hold on and have peace. Rabin bet that Arafat was ready to show some concrete achievement for his people before he died, and that he would prevent the emergence of the ultra-rejectionist Hamas as the leading power among the Palestinian Arabs. Rabin lost that bet - badly. But since it has become manifest that Arafat has no intention of achieving peace, Israel has been fighting to create the conditions to make it possible for some other Palestinian leader to do so.

There is no such leader. There is no one with any political clout among the Palestinian Arabs who is both interested in a settlement with Israel and willing to fight for that achievement. Israel could certainly talk to a Sari Nusseibeh, but Nusseibeh is utterly without credibility. Israel could talk to a Mahmoud Abbas, but Abbas declared publicly that he would not use the Palestinian security forces in any way to fight terrorists among the Palestinians, because he was not going to start a Palestinian civil war. In other words: Israel could talk to him, but those who preferred to fight could continue to do so with impunity.

Israel's political objectives cannot be realized without change on the other side. And while Israel can defeat the other side any number of times, Israel cannot change the other side. That's why Sharon, architect of the expanded settlement policy implemented in the 1980s and designed to make it impossible to disgorge Judea and Samaria, is now proposing a unilateral withdrawal to more defensible lines, with President Bush's blessing.

And now, to return to Iraq, the irony. Even as we facilitate the Israeli retreat, America is fighting the kind of war against Arab guerillas that Israel is trying to give up on. America has a very powerful military, the most powerful in the world, far more powerful than the IDF. America can defeat anything the Iraqi insurgents throw at us with eminently tolerable losses. Every death is a tragedy, and no American President should contemplate the loss of American life without good cause. But if the cause is good, no one can pretend that the losses we have suffered are unsustainable.

But we cannot achieve our political objectives on the battlefield, any more than Israel can.

We are also fighting for peace. The avowed reason we are in Iraq is to remake that country into a friendly, pro-Western, reasonably free and democratic state that will oppose rather than supporting anti-Western terrorist groups and other threats to our security. But we cannot do this ourselves. Only the Iraqis can make Iraq such a country, if anyone can. Beating the thugs and the bandits and the jihadis only makes it possible for the Iraqis to seize that opportunity. It doesn't assure that they will seize it.

And it sure looks like they won't. Mark Steyn said in a recent column that "in the Arab world, the indifferent are the biggest demographic" - and he thinks this should encourage us, because, wanting to go with the "strong horse" they'll back us if we show that we are that horse. Show determination, kill the thugs, and all will be well. Well, that's all fine and dandy if we intend to remain in Iraq forever. But we don't intend to stay there forever. We intend to turn the place over to them. And them - the 99.9% of indifferent Iraqis who just want not to get shot - will not make the country a democracy. The tree of liberty must be watered by the blood of patriots. Who are these Iraqi patriots eager to water their tree? Ahmad Chalabi? Don't make me laugh.

There are Iraqi Kurds ready to die for their freedom - their freedom to get the heck out of Iraq, that is. But among the Iraqi Arabs there are no significant number ready to do so. And without them it is inconceivable that Iraq will be free, democratic or stable. There will always be thugs. Someone has to keep them from power. If Iraqis won't do it, it'll have to be us. Forever.

Okay, maybe not forever. Maybe only as long as we were in the Philippines. Or maybe longer; while Iraq is more educated and has a larger middle class than the Philippines did in 1898, the political context is much more difficult now than it was then, and Iraq is more durably divided than the Philippines was.

I do not blame the Administration in principle for getting us into this war. The opponents of the war like to say that it was unnecessary. In the wake of the WMD fiasco, that's certainly a defensible position, though I think the war itself is still eminently justifiable, an argument I've made many times and don't need to reiterate again (well, not now anyhow). But it's also not a wholly germane argument. Even if the nation-building exercise were going well (which it isn't), if the war was unjustified by prudence or moral obligation then it would remain unjustified. It would be a lucky accident, not a just war. And even as the nation-building exercise going south, that doesn't directly refute the reasons for going to war. If those reasons were good then, they should be good now - maybe not good enough to justify the cost, but they should still weigh on their side of the ledger.

Here's my question for the anti-war right in a nutshell: what if we'd gone to war after Iraq tried to assassinate President Bush? Or if Laura Mylroie had been right about Iraqi connections to the first World Trade Center bombing, which would certainly have not only justified but demanded war as a response? What if President Clinton had gone to the mat, as many thought he should have, in 1998, and made war on Iraq after Saddam threw out the weapons inspectors? Does anyone think that we'd be having a cake-walk nationbuilding in these circumstances? Does anyone think that fear of guerilla war, or the costs and burdens of occupation, should have deterred us from war if war truly was necessary?

If not, then we have to answer the question of how to win the post-war in Iraq - and places like Iraq - separately from the way we have to debate whether the war was justified or not. The latter is a good and important argument to have, but it is driven by the former only to the extent that part of the justification of war is always a cost-benefit analysis, and the worse and more expensive the occupation is, the more than weighs on the cost side of the equation.

No, what I blame the Administration for is for believing all the garbage they fed themselves about the glorious potential for democracy in Iraq. The only thing - the only thing - Iraq had going for it as a test case for this new theory of bringing democracy at the point of a bayonet is that we had ample justification for pointing the bayonet at them. In pretty much every other way, Iraq was a lousy candidate. All this was clear pre-war, and even some supporters of the war - myself, for instance - pointed out these problems, and worried about them. (And I wasn't entirely alone: Stanley Kurtz was another worrier-but-supporter, and I'll think of others with a little time.) But it has become obvious post-war that the war's most prominent supporters, inside the Administration and in its "amen corner" were wilfully blind to the potential for trouble, even catastrophe. I didn't pay a lot of attention to Ahmad Chalabi before 2002, but as soon as I started to pay attention to him it was obvious he was a charlatan. Why was he ever given the time of day, much less treated as the most trusted confidant and the most reliable source by those who did the most to advocate and plan this war?

We planned for victory, assured that we would be met with garlands of flowers. This was foolish unto madness from the beginning, and our boys are paying for that folly now. Someone in this Administration must pay for that. Someone must, and publicly, if we are to have confidence that this Administration can learn from its mistakes, something I cannot in good conscience believe at this point.

We have not lost Iraq. And we cannot afford to lose Iraq. But we cannot get out of Iraq - not for a long, long time. This is not just about will, though we will need the will to see this through. But to the extent it is about will, we will only muster the will if we believe there is a way. Expressions of confidence will not inspire confidence. This Administration cannot continue to simply redouble its efforts and hope for good news. We need some signs of intelligence, some signs that the bubble can be pierced, and facts let in. Iraq cannot be a faith-based initiative, and for too long it has been that.

After 9-11, we were told that "we are all Israelis now" and to some extent we were. But now, in a different way, we are all Israelis now. We have beaten an Arab army decisively, yet again. We are fighting an Arab insurgency, and I have total confidence that we can crush it if we will. But our political objectives depend on more than good will and a willingness to use force. They depend on a transformation of an Arab people into something it has never been. I don't know if that can be done. I wish, desperately, that we had talked honestly about this before the war, but we didn't, and so we must do so now. The Israelis, after years of war, are retreating behind a wall, hoping the Arabs on the other side will content themselves with fouling their own nests. Should we retreat from Iraq with the same hope, we will do so in vain.