Too Soft?

Ralph Peters is annoyed:

OUR troops in Iraq are fighting a 21st-century war. And they’re winning on the battlefield. But they’re being defeated by diplomats seeking a 20th-century peace.

Paul Bremer, Washington’s scoutmaster in Baghdad, is a solid, hardworking 20th-century bureaucrat. But the future of Iraq – and the entire Middle East – demands a 21st-century strategist who can escape the cant of the foreign-policy establishment and the lure of failed models of nation-building.

We created the problem of Fallujah – through neglect. Had we had adequate forces on hand a year ago in the immediate aftermath of combat to permeate the Sunni Triangle with troops, and had the administration had the clarity of vision to declare martial law, the current violence would have been averted.

Instead, we handed gold-plated lollipops to killers and worried about hurting the feelings of Saddam’s hard-core supporters. We looked away as the terrorists gripped one Iraqi city after another – because we lacked the forces to put a military “cop” on every beat. Our enemies didn’t need to hide – we weren’t around often enough to see them.

There’s quite a bit more to Peters’ argument but it goes along the same lines. Very much a hard hand of war approach. I’m honestly not sure what the correct approach is but the “play nice” mode is, if nothing else, rather frustrating to watch unfold.

Peters’ 21st century solution sounds remarkably like the strategy used for every occupation from the dawn of recorded history through, roughly, this one. Armies of occupation have pretty much always declared martial law, set up the institutions of government, and then done whatever they were going to do politically. Until rather recently, they kept it for themselves; they were conquerors after all. The ideal type occupy-and-democratize model is our post-WWII experiments in Germany and Japan, which very much followed Peters’ plan.

Whether because of honest conviction, pressure from the domestic opponents of the war, the desire for approval of the international community, the desire to win Arab–especially Iraqi–hearts and minds, or some combination of all those, we’ve decided to try to do it differently here. Time will tell how it works out, but the fact that lightly armed thugs are able to create major problems a year after the occupation began isn’t heartening.

The ironies here are manifold. There’s no way to win over the Iraqi people without first providing security. It’s not unreasonable for them to think they’re worse off now than under Saddam if they’re getting killed by internal thugs, imported terrorists, and stray gunfire from Americans. Certainly, defeating the insurgents is going to create some short-term animosity but so is the insurgency itself.

Further, like all attempts at appeasement, it’s bound to fail. Not only won’t the enemy respect us but the UN and other opponents of the war aren’t going to suddenly come over to the other side if we play nice and don’t accomplish the mission we’ve set out to achieve. Indeed, the opposite is true, as it would prove that the war was ill-conceived. The only way to gain reconciliation is to win. A stable, reasonably democratic Iraq will ultimately be our ally. Opponents of the war, foreign and domestic, will rally, too. All wars are unpopular at the time. The only ones that remain so are the ones you don’t win.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.