They Are Coming, Mr. President

July 19, 2003 • Commentary

President George W. Bush’s earthy simplicity was a strength after Sept. 11. But today he seems out of touch with foreign realities. Of Islamic militants he says, “bring ‘em on.”

The president, cosseted by a Secret Service guard, might not have noticed, but America’s enemies are bringing it on, killing and wounding American soldiers every day.

The problem is not that Saddam Hussein — if he is alive — is capable of driving out American forces and re‐​establishing his dictatorship. Hatred of the Baathists is too widespread to allow them a popular victory.

But violent opposition to American rule will make it far more difficult to remake Iraqi society. And the occupation will require ever‐​harsher tactics that will inflame resentment against America.

Of course, the United States theoretically can withstand a couple of casualties a day, the current rate. But already half of the Army’s 10 divisions are committed to Iraq. Washington also is garrisoning wealthy allied states in East Asia and Europe, policing unstable Bosnia and Kosovo, fighting Islamist remnants in Afghanistan, and perhaps reconstructing Liberia.

Even enlisting the Marines in garrison duty won’t yield the troops necessary to maintain these commitments and give soldiers time back home in America. Nor can the problem be solved by calling up reservists. Overseas service is even harder on them, since they must leave job as well as family.

In the short‐​term, of course, soldiers will obey orders to go. But in the long‐​term, troops won’t re‐​up. And civilians won’t join. Already troops who thought they were going over to liberate, not garrison, Iraq are angrily demanding to go home.

Baathists are but one source of dissatisfaction with the U.S. occupation. Sunni elites used to governing Iraq fear lost privileges; fundamentalist Shiites resent an occupation by Western Christians allied with Israel.

Independent Islamic terrorists, along with agents from Iran and Syria, are looking for targets. Any attempt to re‐​establish central control over Kurdish areas will anger groups that had been America’s strongest allies.

Although most Iraqis were glad to be rid of Saddam Hussein, most of them share the general antipathy toward the U.S. government evident throughout the Mideast and Islamic worlds. Moreover, like all peoples everywhere, Iraqis want to run their own affairs.

The United States proclaimed liberation, but has done little to convince Iraqis that they will soon become masters of their own fate. One U.S. sergeant told The Economist magazine: “You promise freedom. They get martial law.”

Every time American troops arrest, bind and blindfold an Iraqi, they create another Iraqi ready to demand Washington’s ouster. Every time American troops wound or kill an Iraqi, they push family and friendly toward a violent response.

Indeed, U.S. forces have increasingly been criticized for shooting first and asking questions later. Even the British have been appalled by some American practices. After learning that U.S. troops had arrested three innocent Iraqis — whose families came to the British for help — British Col. Steve Cox termed the Americans “idiot” and “stupid.”

The fault is not that of U.S. soldiers. They are trained to be warriors, to destroy an opposing military, not to be governors, to balance competing political factions.

Expanding hostility and resentment will not necessarily result in direct support for those killing Americans. But a simple refusal to oppose them could make U.S. control untenable.

At Baghdad University, an American civil affairs soldier was gunned down and the culprit escaped despite a campus full of witnesses. If Americans are murdered without penalty, what Iraqi will want to join with the United States? Seven Iraqi police recruits were recently murdered for “collaborating.”

The longer Washington temporizes, the more difficult the situation becomes. The United States must enlist local Iraqi factions in the governing process, so they understand that they have a stake in rebuffing the Baathists.

Washington must quickly withdraw from day‐​to‐​day governance while preparing a decentralized federal structure with some hope of surviving America’s departure. It should swallow its pride and request allied assistance — which requires allied participation in decision‐​making. And Washington must create a rough timetable for pulling out, indicating that the United States is prepared to live with any government that neither aids terrorists nor develops weapons of mass destruction.

Some argue that it is vital that America get Iraq right. But it will take years to do so, if that goal is even possible.

Along the way, Washington is likely to face an increasingly costly guerrilla war and increasing hostility toward America throughout Iraq and the Islamic world. That would mean losing the peace.

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