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What We Have Learned From Iraq

By Robert Tracinski

In Iraq, the prospect of toppling a dictatorial regime and replacing it with something better turned out to be a much larger and more complex task than in Afghanistan. This is an experiment from which we gained the most new information in the years following September 11.

Iraq has produced two crucial lessons that ought to be learned--and, I think, that are being learned.

The first lesson is that this war will not be won just in swift campaigns but through long persistence. Persistence is required, not because we lack the military means for swift victories, nor even because we have failed to use our full military means in any one particular campaign. Though we have occasionally limited our firepower and held back our strength, we have still proved far more powerful than the enemy in every engagement. The real reason persistence is required is because it is precisely this virtue that our enemies doubt we possess.

Our enemies know that we have plenty of bombs and tanks and guns and that our weapons are far superior to theirs. By now, I'm sure they would even have to acknowledge the superior training and personal courage of American troops. And even though some commentators complain that our troops are held back by overly restrictive "rules of engagement," the fact is that they are not held back by much: they still win every military engagement they are allowed to fight, from the initial invasion of Iraq, to Najaf, to the Second Battle of Fallujah, to Tal Afar, and everywhere else.

So what keeps our enemies going in the face of a constant string of military defeats against an unstoppable adversary? What keeps them going is the hope that we will defeat ourselves, that we will lose the moral certainty that our cause is just, that we will collapse from within and withdraw from the battle.

The Islamists remember that the world's other superpower, the Soviet Union, collapsed and retreated after ten years of resistance in Afghanistan. They don't properly understand the cause of that collapse, or the fact that it had little to do with Afghanistan or with the mujahideen, nor do they understand the profound differences between the United States and the Soviet Union. And precisely because they do not understand all of those issues, they hope to repeat what they think they accomplished in Afghanistan: that if they can just manage to survive through ten years of bloody losses, the enemy will collapse and disappear.

There is a crucial respect in which the War on Terrorism could not have been won in one year, or in five years, even if we had fought it more swiftly, more decisively, and with greater ferocity than we have. We could be much farther ahead in destroying the enemy, but we could not yet have fundamentally demoralized him, because no American action over a limited time could do so. The only thing that can fundamentally demoralize the enemy is continued American action over a long period of time. It is not our ability to strike effectively that the Islamists doubt; it is our ability to keep doing so over five, or ten, or twenty-five years.

We have to keep fighting the Islamists over a period of years, because we are trying to reverse a twenty-five year record of refusing to fight them prior to September 11. They remember the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, Beirut in 1983, Somalia in 1993, the inadequate response to the embassy bombings in 1998 and the non-existent response to the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. They looked at these and other acts of American retreat in the face of Islamic terrorism, and they believed that these acts gave them the measure of the American character--an impression that can only be reversed by a decade or more of American persistence.

It will take this long because our enemy draws inspiration from examples of American internal collapse that date back long before our confrontation with radical Islam. They draw inspiration from the image of the last helicopter out of Vietnam, more than thirty years ago, an image that sums up their goal of forcing a bewildered America to retreat in desperate confusion.

And that brings us to the real source of the enemy's hope, and the biggest lesson to be learned from the Iraq War. The greatest threat to American victory does not come from without but from within. It comes from the academics and intellectuals who represent the essence of the American left. The Bush administration has made many errors that will make an American victory more difficult, but Bush and the American right undoubtedly want America to win this war. They will slow down an American victory, but they won't make it impossible.

The American far left, by contrast, does not want us to win. Deliberately inverting every pro-American, pro-war rallying cry, they declared that America is the real "evil empire," a "rogue nation" with a "fascist" government whose leader is equivalent to Hitler. They say that America--not Afghanistan or Iraq or Iran or Syria--is the country most in need of "regime change." They compare Islamist fighters to "minutemen," while they fantasize about the assassination of an American president.

A few of these creatures were brave enough to scuttle out into the public glare in the days immediately after September 11, but it was not until the invasion of Iraq and the beginning of the insurgency that their followers became emboldened. And it was not until the past few years--culminating the purge of Joe Lieberman from the Democratic Party--that this group demonstrated the full degree of its influence over one of America's major political parties.

Who these people are, what drives them, and how they can hate Western civilization so much while being showered with all of its benefits is a question that will take years for many people to grapple with. Most commentators have only begun to explore this question, and their results have been mixed. (See, for example, a recent effort by John McWhorter.)

But the lesson of Iraq is that this ideological conflict is the real key to America's long-term survival. Winning the war requires more than military strength. It requires moral and intellectual strength. Only moral strength will give us the confidence to persist against the enemy, and only intellectual strength will allow us to win the internal ideological struggle against Western self-hatred.

If the danger within our own culture is the first lesson of Iraq, the second lesson is about the culture of the Arab and Islamic world--which is now revealed as being much worse than most Americans were ready to believe. Throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, large minorities of the population--in some areas, such as the Palestinian territories, they are outright majorities--do not blink at constant warfare and destruction, at mothers willingly sending their sons to become suicide bombers, and at a ruthless chaos in which every sect and tribe seeks to impose a violent domination over every other sect and tribe.

This is the curse of Iraqi politics. It is why Iraq took so long to create a constitution. It is why Iraq's elections for its first permanent government were followed by a four-month-long political standoff before Iraqis could appoint a new prime minister. It is why every major political faction in Iraq also maintains its own armed militia. In the tradition of the Arab world--a tradition deeply rooted in Islam--the political ideal is not individual liberty nor even peaceful coexistence, but rather domination, the absolute rule of one sect, tribe, or faction over everyone else. This is why the Arabs so easily imported every totalitarian ideology they found in the West, indiscriminately mixing the influences of Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao to provide the inspiration, first for the secular Arab dictatorships of the 20th century, and now for religious dictatorship.

Americans have never paid much attention to the internal cultural and political battles of the Arab and Muslim world. After the invasion of Iraq, they have had to pay attention, because the success of a crucial battle of the War on Terrorism depends on the political struggle in Iraq.

What they have seen is the ultimate refutation of the Multiculturalism of the left, which assured us that all cultures are "equally valuable" and that the cultures of the Third World are more equal than others. But Iraq has also been a rebuke to the glib confidence of some on the right who assured us that Arabs and Muslims are just like us, equally prepared to benefit from the blessings of a free society. In fact, the Iraqis have turned out to be far more violent, primitive, and tribalistic.

I think this lesson has been the most demoralizing to the average American. If Americans are "war weary," it is not because we have suffered massive casualties, because we haven't; most people do not even know anyone who has been killed or injured in Iraq. And it is certainly not because we are suffering from economic privation; this is a small and relatively inexpensive war. Americans are "war weary" because they are tired of having to pay attention to the unfamiliar and unattractive culture of the Middle East.

But the primitivism of the Arab and Islamic world does not mean that we should give up on Iraq. It is, in fact, the very reason we have to keep trying, because we can now glimpse the full brutality of the forces that will take over the Middle East if we do not oppose them with a better alternative.

And although it is easy to forget this, in the chaos that has come since, Iraq has also offered us a different lesson. The multiple elections held in Iraq in 2005, followed by that year's spontaneous popular demonstrations against Syrian tyranny in Lebanon--demonstrations inspired in part by the example of Iraq--all of these events are reminders that something better is possible. Even within the corrupt culture of the contemporary Arab world, the human spirit and a desire for some better kind of life is not dead.

But we have learned that the struggle to support the best men in the Arab and Muslim world, and to help them reform and improve the violent culture of their region, will be much more difficult and take much longer than many Americans had hoped.

Robert Tracinski writes daily commentary at He is the editor of The Intellectual Activist and

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