Commentary

Washington’s Peter Pan Strategy for Iraq

The Bush administration and its political allies continue a propaganda barrage against the news media, accusing journalists of overemphasizing the negative in Iraq. That criticism comes close to embracing a Peter Pan strategy: the notion that everything in Iraq will be fine if we just think happy thoughts. But things are not fine in Iraq. The rocket attack on the al-Rashid hotel (the headquarters of the U.S. occupation authority) and the epidemic of suicide car bombings in recent days make that point abundantly clear.

U.S. military personnel are under attack daily and, most worrisome of all, the attacks are becoming more intense and sophisticated. As much as the White House and its supporters might want to spotlight other developments (how many schools have reopened, how many bridges have been repaired, etc.), the safety of U.S. troops is the primary concern of most Americans.

In May and June, an average of 12 attacks per day were directed at American troops. In September, when commanding general Ricardo Sanchez finally conceded the gravity of the security situation that number stood at about 17 attacks per day. Now, an average between 25 and 35 per day are reported.

American casualties, naturally enough, are also rising. In May and June, two to three American soldiers a week were killed by hostile fire. The figure is now four to five each week. Moreover, the number of fatalities is just the tip of a very ugly iceberg. General Sanchez conceded that approximately 40 troops a week were being wounded, many severely. If that trend continues, it would amount to more than 2,000 wounded in a year.

By historical standards, the ratio of wounded in action to killed in action is extraordinarily high. That likely reflects the high quality of medical care provided by the U.S. military. If the medical capabilities of even a decade or two ago were in effect today, the number of fatalities would be greater. Still, many of those who would have perished from their wounds in earlier wars will emerge from Iraq alive, but utterly shattered physically.

The spreading geographical distribution of the attacks also is a concern. American spokesmen like to emphasize that the majority of assaults have occurred in the so-called Sunni Triangle in central Iraq, and they attribute the concentration there to diehard supporters of Saddam Hussein. But that pattern is changing. A recent attack that killed three American soldiers took place in Karbala, in the previously (and relatively) quiet southern part of Iraq. Furthermore, the attackers were members of a Shiite militia, not Saddam’s forces. Days later, an attack killed two Americans near Kirkuk in northern Iraq, the region that had been the most pacific and stable part of the country. In short, the opposition to the U.S. occupation now includes groups other than Saddam’s Sunni holdouts.

Administration officials have a point when they argue that reconstruction is progressing. Some progress has been made in reconstruction. But though the United States may be opening new schools, it’s likely that some of the older members of the student body may be guerrilla fighters in their off hours. Washington and its Iraqi allies may patch together remnants of the infrastructure, but insurgents can blow up almost anything at their leisure. Consider the oil pipeline in northern Iraq. Two months ago, the U.S. authorities declared the pipeline ready to ship oil. Yet little oil has flowed since then because of repeated sabotage.

The administration and its allies may focus on transitory achievements and downplay the importance of the security issue all they wish. Their actions, though, are reminiscent of the grim joke: “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was your evening?” Security is central. Without it, all of the other accomplishments mean little.

It may be premature to describe Iraq as a quagmire, but the trend is ominous. Supporters of the Iraq mission seem determined to shoot the messengers who report bad news. But that won’t change the grim reality of that news.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author or editor of 15 books on international affairs, including “Peace & Freedom: Foreign Policy for a Constitutional Republic.”