July 1, 2005

Frontline: Staying the course in Iraq

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

With the Fourth of July marking America's 229th birthday this week, barbeques, fireworks and the Stars & Stripes were not the only things on Americans' minds. Nearly two and a half years since US troops were sent into Iraq, many Americans are asking when Independence Day celebrations will be able to take place in that country and, more importantly, when US troops will be able to come home.

Facing mounting US military casualties resulting from an intensified Iraqi insurgency, increasing questions in Congress about the future of the US troop presence in Iraq and slumping poll numbers, President George W. Bush took to the podium last week to address the situation in Iraq head-on.

He painted the conflict there as part and parcel of the war on terrorism, launched by foreign terrorists with the attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.

"The troops here and across the world are fighting a global war on terror," Bush said in a speech at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. "This war reached our shores on Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorists who attacked us-and the terrorists we face-murder in the name of a totalitarian ideology that hates freedom, rejects tolerance and despises all dissent."

Meanwhile, Democrats lament the loss of US credibility abroad, citing the prison abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, the detention of terrorist suspects without trial at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba and the US practice of rendition of terrorist suspects to foreign countries that practice torture.

What the president and Democrats share is a noble view of America's intentions.

The president, with Republican support, says US and Allied forces are in Iraq to defend freedom from the tyranny of terrorism and to spread democracy to dark corners of the world, and they maintain that the Abu Ghraib prison scandal was an aberration. Many Democrats make similar arguments about the nobility of US intentions, but they say US principles and credibility are undermined by apparent US violations of the rights to due process and a general lack of accountability when it comes to punishing those who abuse their might.

This sense of US nobility, however, is something many in the Islamic world-where the US is focusing its war on terror and pressure for democratic reform-do not share.

They see a very different America. The America they, and some Europeans, see is one that is imperialist, uses its military might to make right, is bent on winning a "crusade" (as Bush once called it) against Islam, and presses for democratic reform only as a tactic to undermine hostile regimes.

In their minds, the princes and oil barons of Saudi Arabia are beholden to US interests, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak trades his independence for US dollars, the US gradually is tightening the noose around Iran with its troop presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Israel is the epitome of America's beachhead in the Middle East, the Judeo-Christian (or infidel) thorn in the side of the Islamic world.

While Americans believe episodes like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal are aberrations, many in the Muslim world believe these are the real signals of US intentions in the Arab world: Fight America, and America will fight back unhampered by the "rules" that govern democracies.

Many Americans want to believe they will win this war on terrorism by convincing the Muslim world that they want only what's best for its people: democracy and freedom and self-rule. But in a corner of the world where force speaks loudest, perhaps the other signal has a greater effect.

After all, what's more intimidating to terrorist combatants-democratic elections or US military victories? The terrorists seem more interested in defeating America than they are in the amorphous goal of defeating democracy. To win this war, it is more important that America beat into submission the terrorists who have taken up arms against it than win over those whom it can through lofty rhetoric.

That is not to say that the US or it allies abroad should allow the subversion of democratic principles when it comes to keeping civilians out of harm's way in combat, treating detainees and suspects according to the rule of law, or building alliances with undemocratic regimes. It just means that US "aberrations"-though they contravene moral and democratic principles, undermine support by Americans for the war in Iraq and discourage US allies from joining the Iraqi reconstruction effort-may also have the unintended consequence of discouraging terrorists, just like mafia thugs who use baseball bats and iron pipes to demonstrate their power.

It also means that those calling for an end to the US and Allied presence in Iraq are sending precisely the wrong message to the terrorist fighters pouring into the country.

"Setting an artificial timetable would send the wrong message to the Iraqis, who need to know that America will not leave before the job is done," Bush said last week. "It would send the wrong signal to our troops, who need to know that we are serious about completing the mission they are risking their lives to achieve. And it would send the wrong message to the enemy, who would know that all they have to do is to wait us out. We will stay in Iraq as long as we are needed and not a day longer."

The quagmire in Iraq may well be a mess of Bush's making. There is strong evidence that Bush planned to invade the country even before the attacks of Sept. 11, and the original reasons for the US invasion in 2003 (destroying Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction) have been jettisoned in favor of more noble-sounding goals.

By that count, Bush may bear personal responsibility for the deaths (so far) of 1,748 US troops in Iraq.

The question now, however, is not whether or not Bush was right or wrong to start this fight in the first place. The question is whether the US and its allies can leave with the job undone and still convey the message that suicide bombings, beheadings and terrorist insurgencies will fail to overcome the forces of freedom and democracy.

The answer is no, and that is why America and its allies-for the good of the free world and all those who support it-must now stay the course.