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Iraq is a Test We Cannot Fail

By Robert Tracinski

Toppling and disarming Saddam Hussein was accomplished quickly in 2003, and if that were all that were at stake, we could have packed up and returned home by now. But that is not all that is at stake.

America has long since demonstrated that it has the military power to quickly topple any hostile regime in the Middle East--but we have not demonstrated the persistence and moral certainty necessary to do the work that is not quick: the work of establishing a new regime to replace that dictatorship. This is the task that requires American to find the moral and intellectual fortitude to endure through a long conflict.

This task is not optional, and in fact a self-imposed failure at this task will cripple America in the War on Terrorism.

The opposition to the war on the right is the opposition that really matters, since it will require Republican votes in Congress to pass any legislation mandating a retreat from Iraq. That opposition to the war has been growing among those who believe we should never get involved in a counter-insurgency war. This is the type of conservative whose central foreign-policy principle is opposition to the use of the US military for "nation-building" (an opposition President Bush stated, ironically, in his first presidential campaign).

But "nation-building" has always been a false issue. It was the conservatives' indirect way of opposing altruistic military missions in places where the US had no vital interests at stake, such as Bosnia. But the conservatives did not dare to reject altruism as such, so instead they chose "nation-building" as an artificial stand-in--focusing on a non-essential as an excuse to evade the essential one.

In fact, the propriety of "nation-building" depends on what nation you are trying to build, and why.

In Iraq, the need to create and support a new government there--one that is not likely to be a threat to the United States--flows directly from the decision to invade. After all, there is no point in toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein, only to see it replaced by an equally hostile rival--whether al-Qaeda in Iraq or the Iranian-backed Mahdi Army.

Thus, the shifting goal of the Iraq war should be no surprise. We invaded to pre-empt Saddam Hussein's acquisition or use of chemical and nuclear weapons--but we had to stay to avoid handing Iraq over to the control of our other enemies. And that involved creating and defending a new government, which turned out to require a "nation-building" counter-insurgency war.

As I hinted at in the first part of this article, the greatest proof that the Bush administration did not invade Iraq primarily to spread "democracy" is the fact that they made no preparation to use military force to achieve that goal. The invasion was designed only to topple Saddam Hussein's regime, with the assumption that a relatively free society would simply emerge on its own in the absence of a tyrant to suppress it. And the administration assumed that this new liberal society would require only our diplomatic and political support--since that is the only real support it offered.

Even as late as 2006, when we were beginning to use counter-insurgency techniques in Iraq, the overall military strategy (now usually referred to as the "Rumsfeld-Casey strategy") was simply to keep the insurgents suppressed until we could goad the Iraqis into achieving a grand political reconciliation. The handover of sovereignty to the interim government, the drafting of a new constitution, the Iraqi elections in 2005 and 2006--all of these events were supposed to create that political breakthrough, on the assumption that a political reconciliation would cause the insurgency to wither away. It was assumed that purely political means could be used to win a military conflict (an illusion that still holds sway among many members of Congress). It is only now that General Petraeus is attempting to implement a unified political and military strategy against the insurgency.

Fighting this kind of counter-insurgency war is unavoidable because an insurgency is the strategy our enemies have chosen--and they chose it because it hits us directly at two of our crucial weak spots.

America's two crucial weak spots in war are the pragmatism and moral timidity of the right--and the active Western self-loathing of the left.

The first weak spot, for example, causes such strategic errors as the belief that we could fight a war narrowly within Iraq, without fighting a larger regional conflict against Iran and Syria. That decision allowed those two dictatorships to create and support the insurgency with impunity.

The second weak spot furnishes the left with a moral fifth column, a wide cultural movement within the West that will seek to exploit any errors and setbacks in the war as proof that we are morally unfit to fight it and must surrender. (And when the left can't find evidence of our moral unfitness, they will fake it.)

A terrorist insurgency is perfectly aimed at these two weak spots. The right's timidity will prevent it from taking decisive action against the sponsors and supporters of the insurgency, causing the war to drag on longer than it needs to--and the longer the war lasts, the more the culturally influential left will chip away at public support for it.

Our enemies know that these are our weaknesses, because we have proved them again and again, in Somalia, in Beirut--and particularly in Vietnam. These are the examples they look to in pursuing this strategy.

Insurgency war is not only aimed at our weak spots; it is also well suited to our enemies' capabilities. It is an inexpensive war to maintain in terms of manpower, weapons, and technology. It requires, not massive armies and fearsome warships, but a few thousands car bombs and a few hundred suicide bombers. This is a war our enemies know they can sustain. They are short on military and economic power--but long on ideological indoctrination and religious fanaticism, precisely the resources called for by an insurgency.

But there is one final, broader reason why an insurgency war is a strategy peculiarly suited to the advocates of modern Islamic totalitarianism. I used to grumble about the use of the term "War on Terrorism," citing the objection that terror is a tactic, not an enemy. But I eventually accepted the term, in part because terrorism is a tactic that is distinctive to our enemy and describes his particular methods and goals. The same applies to an insurgency, which is a terror bombing campaign writ large.

Consider how the threat of radical Islam differs from the old Middle Eastern threat of Arab nationalism. Arab nationalism was a blend of Communist and Fascist ideology that envisioned a united Arab dictatorship led by a military strongman--the role coveted by a succession of dictators, from Nasser to Saddam Hussein. Nasser's ambitions were thwarted forty years ago in the 1967 Six Day War against Israel, and Arab nationalism further withered with the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 killed Arab nationalism definitively. But note that this old dictatorial vision was one of large armies, masses of bureaucrats, and the conventional conquest of Middle Eastern lands to be controlled by an organized, all-powerful state.

For all their talk of an Islamic "caliphate," today's Islamists do not really have such an organized vision. Their ideology is not taken from Lenin but from Mohammed--a cruder, more primitive source. It is a charter, not for a modern state, but for tribal gang warfare, and the rule of the Islamists has been dominated by the capricious whim of holy warriors, usually without much pretense of scientific organization or the rule of law.

This can be seen in many of the societies where Islamists have risen to power: their model of the ideal society has been on display in Somalia, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Gaza, and Waziristan. It is best described as anarcho-totalitarianism: total control over the individual, not by an organized state, but by roving criminal gangs of religious zealots.

This can also be seen in a far more organized society which still holds the principles of Islamism in its black heart: Saudi Arabia. I recently came across an eye-opening article about the Saudi religious police, who enforce its strict Islamic law. I had assumed that these religious police were endowed with some kind of formal legal authority under the direct charter of the Saudi rulers. It turns out this isn't true. The Saudi government's only constitution is the Koran--literally--and the religious police are simply vigilantes who cite the Koran as their authority to use force against Saudi citizens. (The article, incidentally, is about attempts to subject these religious police to legal scrutiny and some rudiments of the rule of law.)

You can see how a terrorist insurgency is suited to this nihilistic vision. The insurgency in Iraq primarily seeks to sow chaos--which is all that its kidnappings, revenge killings, and car bombings can actually achieve.

So these are all of the reasons why we have to learn to fight and win a counter-insurgency war: it is the kind of war that is best suited to the goals and capabilities of the enemy--and best calculated to hit us at our weaknesses. Conservatives are correct that withdrawal from such a conflict will convey weakness to our enemies, but it is not just a generalized weakness. It is a specific weakness: the unwillingness to fight and win a counter-insurgency war. In ratifying this weakness, we will be telling our enemies: here is where and how to strike us, if you want to defeat us every time.

Let's say, for example, that we were to withdraw from Iraq now--then set out at some later point to topple the Iranian regime. Don't you think the remnants of that regime--even if they were defeated in a conventional conflict or faced an uprising from their own people--would have every incentive to turn Iran into another terrorist "quagmire," replicating the model that succeeded for them in Iraq? That would be the message of a successful Muslim insurgency in Iraq: that the US may always win on the conventional battlefield--but the Islamists will always win in the unconventional battle that follows.

The enemy's incentive to use this strategy against us is far too strong. We're going to face it again and again until we demonstrate that we have learned how to break a Muslim terrorist insurgency. And on that issue, Iraq is a test we cannot fail.

Surrender in Iraq would validate the terrorist insurgency as an infallible winning tactic. It would validate that tactic far more thoroughly than our previous retreats from Somalia and Beirut, and losing this time would make it ten times harder to demonstrate our ability to win a counter-insurgency war in the future.

On the positive side, facing down this insurgency and defeating it provides us with an excellent opportunity to discredit the cause of Islamism. The Islamists share one crucial characteristic with the old Arab nationalist strongmen: they promise their followers strength. They promise victory and conquest as a balm for the deep-seated Muslim sense of inferiority and humiliation. Bin Laden described the theory behind his international terrorist crime spree as the "strong horse" theory: the people will support his cause because they regard it as successful, while they see the enemy as weak.

Winning in Iraq would have a unique power to discredit the view that the terrorists are the strong horse. The terrorists already know that they can't win in a conventional, stand-up fight. A victory in Iraq would tell them that they can't win an insurgency, either. The Islamists would come across, to their supporters and sympathizers in the Arab and Muslim world, as just another group of posturing failures who promised greatness and delivered humiliation.

There are two things we ought to do to win the counter-insurgency war. The first is to follow the new counter-insurgency strategy employed by General Petraeus within Iraq, a strategy based on intensive study of previous counter-insurgency wars. The second is one that is not being tried: to starve the insurgents of funding, training, weapons, and support by toppling the regimes outside of Iraq who are supporting the insurgents.

But there is one prerequisite that makes these other measures possible: we have to stay in Iraq and keep fighting.

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

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