A president of the United States should not expect to be spared from media criticism on account that something which had happened wasn’t really his fault. If he is a Republican, he should be especially sure of this. So if White House staffers made an honest mistake in not overly qualifying a banner meant to express admiration for the success of an aircraft carrier crew back from the longest tour of duty since the Vietnam era, President Bush had no right to complain when he was accused of prematurely declaring victory in Iraq, even as he warned on that infamous May Day, “Our mission continues. Al-Qaida is wounded, not destroyed.”
He was wrong in stating that the end of ‘major combat operations’ had come. Yet, quietly, almost unnoticed by the vast majority of Americans preoccupied with an economy that is tanking, the brave men and women of our armed forces, led by General Petraeus, a brilliant soldier-scholar in the mold of the legendary Xenophon, and by the resolve of a president who refused to accept defeat when it was supposed to be the only option, have created facts on the ground in Iraq such that it would be completely apt to bring that ill-fated banner out of retirement, six years later.
There were three primary goals that American policymakers had, but failed to clearly elucidate, when we opened up the Iraqi front in the war against Islamic radicalism: 1) to remove an aggressive, violent dictator as a threat to order in the Middle East, 2) to remake Iraq into a model of democracy for the rest of the Islamic world, and 3) to move the battleground away from Manhattan. The first was accomplished within weeks. Yet, the latter two took longer, and may have even seemed like pipe dreams for a time. However, today, six years later, we see that all three have been accomplished.
There is a line of thought, popular among both those on the left who sympathize with the grievances of our enemies and those who self-righteously proclaim themselves to be “realists,” that terrorism is impossible to defeat; rather, its “root causes” must be dealt with. In other words, we must appease the demands of our enemies, for then they will no longer hate us. Such is wishful thinking and empirically false. Israel’s Ariel Sharon was called a warmonger when he rejected such beliefs, but bus and pizzeria bombings virtually disappeared due to measures like targeted assassinations and a security fence widely criticized by the left. Terrorism went from an existential threat to a nuisance for the Jewish State.
The war we wage against terrorism is similar. Many have argued that our fight in Iraq would be counterproductive, that is, it would merely encourage terrorism. Yet, not one major terrorist attack has occurred on American soil since the adoption of Bush’s anti-terrorism strategy following 9/11. Correlation is not necessarily causation, but there is a strong case to be made that what we did in Iraq succeeded in reducing the chances of another terrorist attack happening here at home. Terrorism cannot be fought effectively on our soil without us surrendering the civil liberties that make us the freest people on earth. The battle must be brought to the terrorists.
That is precisely what happened. Foreign fighters streamed into Iraq to fight the Great Satan—which means that the terrorists and their resources were not flowing into America. We paid a terrible price in blood and treasure but we successfully destroyed Al Qaeda in Iraq. On April 20, 2007, as the surge was in full swing, Harry Reid unequivocally said, “The war is lost.” Wishful thinking for defeatists, perhaps, but terrorism has been fought and defeated. Whereas, scores of American soldiers would die in roadside bombs a few years back, today, hostile deaths of American military personnel have fallen precipitously (it’s amazing what happens when one directs leftists to icasualties.org) to levels that, while still tragic, are indicative of our military’s enduring success.
The ideological and psychological effects of this are no less relevant than the fact that limited terrorist resources were expended in Iraq. Osama bin Laden has long spoken of a weak horse and a strong horse and the tendency of individuals to gravitate towards the strong horse. One may be willing to die for a cause they think will win, but one will think twice when theirs is a cause that is losing. September 11th may have established radical Islam as the ‘strong horse’ and our initial bungling in Iraq may have confirmed that for many. But the defeat of Al Qaeda in places like Anbar province showed that America can win, and that she will not be deterred from her mission by any amount of sustained resistance from her enemies.
We have struck both a material and a psychological blow to the terrorist wing of Islamic radicalism that becomes more crucial with the ascendancy of the new administration in Washington. For the Obama administration to accomplish the diplomatic goals it spoke of with such conviction, it is hugely beneficial to speak from a position of strength—the position of a nation that has fought terrorism against the counsel of many and prevailed.
Yet, we were not merely fighting Al Qaeda and foreign terrorism; we were waging war against Iraqis who falsely mistook our motives as those of occupiers and not liberators. Many say that a popular insurgency cannot be defeated militarily. They are poor students of history. Comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam have been made passé by mindless protesters desiring to relive the past, but they are not entirely useless. As the eminent Vietnam scholar Lewis Sorley documents in his book, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam, American military prowess had crushed the Viet Cong and the NVA following the Tet Offensive and President Nixon’s victory was undermined only by the post-Watergate Democratic Congress withdrawing aid from our South Vietnamese allies. Fortunately, President Bush has successfully managed the conclusion of our battle against the insurgency in Iraq.
Today, the democratically-elected Iraqi government faces a whole set of problems, but its existence is no longer threatened. Iraq will remain a country ruled by its people, not by a dictator or a monarch who traces his family lineage to Mohammad. The Iraqi people have shown an appreciation and excitement for democracy and have not reacted to it by electing the most radical party possible, as the residents of Gaza did with Hamas. An Islamic coalition supported by moderate clerics rules the country, not the Sadrists, whose message is virulently anti-American and pro-Iranian. It is not a complete model of civil liberties, but it is not the Islamic theocracy many feared it would become. Baghdad, once ruled by gangs of puritanical fundamentalists, is seeing its nightclubs and liquor stores reopen and its parks fill with couples expressing their affection for one another perhaps a little too publicly.
The central thesis of the “democratizers” who argued for our military action in Iraq was that people would choose freedom and peace over violence and tyranny when given the choice. In a region that previously had one democratic Moslem state, the introduction of a second one where there has been no tradition of liberalism will act as an inspiring model for the rest—most importantly its neighbor, Iran—showing that religion can coexist with democracy without the need for all-powerful religious clerics. For democratization to work optimally, a period of somewhat benevolent dictatorship for the proliferation of liberal values in a controlled environment has proved invaluable, but as we skipped this step in Iraq, the nation will require a sustained commitment from us following the end of our military engagement there.
The Democratic Party has been portrayed as weak on issues of national security for more than a third of a century because of its complicity in the loss of a free Vietnam. We ought to pray to God that, as the party wields almost unchecked power today, it will not make the same mistake with Iraq—not for its own sake, but for the sake of the Iraqis and freedom-loving people everywhere.