April 6-8, 2007
By Alan W. Dowd
Four years after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square, the war launched against his regime continues. The U.S. military is too strong to lose, its Iraqi counterparts too weak to win.
It seems the same could be said of the war’s stateside opponents and supporters, stalemated as they are between pulling out and surging forward. They grasp at history to make their arguments, to find parallels, even to seek solace.
From the vantage point of the critics, Iraq is a tragedy and the only way to make things worse is for U.S. forces stay any longer (hence, the anti-surge and pro-pullout resolutions in Congress). To make their case, they point to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; to Israel’s involvement in Lebanon; and of course, to U.S. intervention in Vietnam, where American troops fought and died in a civil war, alongside an ally of dubious merit, with little to show for a decade of sacrifice.
The war’s supporters, for their part, find parallels for Iraq in the horrors of Okinawa and Normandy, Dresden and Nagasaki, that gave way to a new Japan and a new Germany; in the brutal fight for Korea that stymied Stalin; in the standoffs over Berlin and Cuba that risked everything but preserved the Free World; and, yes, in the heavy price America paid for half-measures in Vietnam. It pays to recall that things actually did get worse for Vietnam and its neighbors—and even for America, at least for a while—after the fall of Saigon.
In other words, some three decades later, history still hasn’t settled the debate over Vietnam. Instead, the Vietnam War remains the historical equivalent of a Rorschach inkblot. And for now, so does Iraq.
Thirty years from now, history may not have a verdict on who was right in the springtime of 2003, when the U.S. returned to Iraq to finish what it started in 1991. But history already has much to say about the cost of pulling out of Iraq in 2007 (or 2008, if the anti-war/pro-pork bloc in Congress has its way).
It pays to recall that Iraq does not exist in a vacuum. Setting aside the debate over whether Saddam’s Iraq was part of the war on terror or a diversion from it—and there is more than circumstantial evidence to support Saddam’s terror ties—today’s Iraq is a central front in this global struggle. Iraq’s postwar war is a test of wills, a test from which America has flinched too many times.
Many of us know the list by heart. Regrettably, so do America’s enemies.
In the 1970s, Washington flinched when Americans were taken hostage in Iran. In the 1980s, Washington flinched when Americans were car-bombed in Beirut, murdered in the skies of Scotland and drowned in the waters of the Mediterranean. And since Washington’s response ranged from tepid to timid, the worst was yet to come.
After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Washington launched a war that decimated Saddam’s army but left his regime intact. Because survival was victory for Saddam, it also left the impression that America had flinched yet again. Worse, since a wounded Saddam could not be left unattended and an oil-rich Saudi Arabia could not be left unprotected, U.S. troops took up long-term residence in the land of Mecca and Medina. Stopping short of Baghdad and staying behind in Saudi Arabia would be a fateful decision. As Osama bin Laden later explained, the aim of his global guerilla war was “to expel the occupying enemy from the country of the two holy places.”
In the dozen-year interregnum that separated the beginning and end of America’s war with Saddam, bin Laden’s henchmen tried but initially failed to take down the World Trade Center, derailed a U.S. mercy mission in Somalia, destroyed a pair of U.S. embassies in Africa, blasted a hole in the USS Cole, and finally brought down the towers on 9/11—all because American troops were protecting the Saudis from Saddam. In other words, 9/11 and Iraq were always linked, at least in eyes of our enemies.
Through it all, America’s restraint and “strategic” retreats from here and there were taken as evidence of weakness. But don’t take my word for it: “When tens of your solders were killed in minor battles and one American pilot was dragged in the streets of Mogadishu, you left the area carrying disappointment, humiliation, defeat and your dead with you,” bin Laden yelped. “It was a pleasure for the heart of every Muslim and a remedy to the chests of believing nations to see you defeated in the three Islamic cities of Beirut, Aden and Mogadishu.”
America’s enemies—regardless of their sect or creed—want to add Baghdad to that list, but they don’t want to stop there. As Musab Zarqawi promised before a pair of F-16s sent him to wherever mass-murderers go when justice catches up with them, “We fight today in Iraq, and tomorrow in the land of the two Holy Places, and after there the West.”
Americans should keep that in mind—and consider what yet another retreat would look like from the enemy’s vantage point.