October 21, 2005
Bush Iraq Policy, Flawed as It Is, May Still Succeed

By Mort Kondracke

Despite flagging public support for the Iraq war, there's reason to think President Bush's policies just might work. Americans of all parties should pray that they do.

That's because Bush has this much right: Iraq is now a central front in the war on terrorism. If we lose, the terrorists win - big.

Bush would be discredited, all right, and probably go down as a failed president. Democrats might even win the next election. But defeat, accompanied by the wholesale slaughter of Iraqi "collaborators," would be a humiliation for the United States as a whole and would embolden its enemies all over the world. Al Qaeda, Iran and North Korea all would think they had the United States on the run. The enterprise of spreading democracy through the Islamic world - advanced by Democrats as well as the Bush administration - would suffer a mortal blow.

Bush's critics are right to say that Iraq wasn't a central front until Bush decided to invade. Since then, Iraq has become a magnet for Islamic jihadists, led by Jordanian Abu Mussab Al Zarqawi.

Even Bush doesn't try to make the argument that he cleverly invaded Iraq so as to attract and concentrate terrorists where we could destroy them. The case for war was based on the false assumptions that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and that Iraqis would quickly embrace democracy, serving as a model for the rest of the Middle East.

And Bush's critics certainly are right to say that the immediate post-war administration of Iraq was botched. We had too few troops. We allowed massive looting and destruction of key infrastructure. We mistakenly disbanded the Iraq army. We allowed Hussein's henchmen to constitute a vicious insurgency, equipped with vast quantities of unsecured munitions.

Two thousand U.S. deaths, a scandal over treatment of Iraqi prisoners and constant bloody attacks against Iraqis have dispirited the American public, 60 percent of which now wants to withdraw American troops.

With exceptions, Democrats are both feeding and feeding off public dissatisfaction, branding Iraq a Vietnam-style "quagmire" - implying it's a lost cause - and demanding that Bush unveil a "plan" for withdrawal.

Some leading Democrats almost sound as though they're rooting for a U.S. defeat because it would mean vindication for them and discredit for Bush.

But, for all his errors, Bush may emerge successful in Iraq with a stable almost-democracy in place, an Iraqi military capable of fighting insurgents and the framework set for gradual U.S. withdrawal.

It's just not so that the president has no strategy. Saturday's constitutional elections were a definitive step in the political phase of that strategy: inclusion of more and more Sunnis in the political process.

Sunnis did vote in large numbers. Even if most of them voted "no" on the constitution, they nonetheless voted. One Sunni party supported the draft constitution and, owing to a deal brokered by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Sunnis have every incentive to participate in the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.

The elected parliament will establish a commission to continue work on the constitution. If Sunnis want a voice in that process, they'll have to vote.

Does this mean that the insurgency will end? Certainly not. But the trial of Hussein on massacre charges should help expose Baathist fighters for the monsters they are, reducing Sunni support for the insurgency.

Moreover, according to retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, just back from Iraq, the Sunni insurgency is no longer capable of even platoon-sized attacks on U.S. forces.

"All they can do is plant roadside bombs and fire rockets," Scales said in an interview. As one major sign of progress, he said, the formerly impassable highway from Baghdad International Airport into town is now well-guarded and clogged with traffic.

"The insurgents know they cannot defeat us on the battlefield," he said. "Their target is our will back here. They think that if they can inflict enough casualties, we will pull out."

Scales also said that Zarqawi's jihadists no longer are capable of attacking Iraqi police stations, but are confined to suicide bombings against civilians, mainly Shiites, in hopes of inciting a civil war. Not only has civil war not broken out, but al Qaeda's No. 2 man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has urged Zarqawi to stop slaughtering Shiites, at least for now, because it gives jihad a bad name around the world.

Another reason for optimism is that Iraqi security forces are increasingly capable of engaging in combat. Democrats loudly seized upon the fact that top U.S. commanders testified that only one Iraqi battalion is capable of independent fighting. But Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, formerly in charge of training Iraqis, clarified the situation by saying that while only one battalion can operate completely without U.S. support, 36 can "take the lead" in combat with U.S. assistance and 40 more can fight alongside American forces.

Bush's strategy clearly is for U.S. forces to phase increasingly into an advisory and training role, allowing for eventual withdrawals.

In an intercepted letter to Zarqawi, al Qaeda's Zawahiri optimistically forecast that the United States might quit Iraq just as it did Vietnam, allowing for a jihadist takeover and use of Iraq as a base for attacks elsewhere in the Middle East. Al Qaeda clearly is hoping to win on the battlefield of American politics. No responsible American can let that happen.

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call.

Mort Kondracke

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