What Now?

Two thoughtful observers have columns today arguing that the current unrest in Fallujah is a predictable outcome of us playing too nice in Iraq.

John O’Sullivan:

Last week’s barbaric murders of four Americans in Fallujah, followed by the desecration of their corpses before cheering crowds of Iraqis, have left Americans asking both for explanations and for responses. As usual when terrorists commit particularly wicked atrocities, the experts have a dozen different explanations but few solutions or none at all. Their main concern seems to be to advise that the United States should not “overreact.”

Yet the main explanation of these continuing atrocities may be that since its victory in the Iraq war a year ago, the United States has been so paralyzed by the fear of “overreacting” that it has actually invited resistance. In a word, the problem in Iraq is that our Iraqi enemies are not sufficiently afraid of us.

They know, of course, that the United States and its allies possess overwhelming military power sufficient to crush any resistance. But they may sense that we lack the moral self-confidence to use that power.

Ralph Peters agrees:

Intelligence personnel are routinely warned to avoid mirror-imaging, assigning our values and psychology to an opponent. Imagining that our enemies think like us has cost us dearly in Iraq. The bill will go still higher.

Combined with the administration’s folly of trying to occupy Iraq with too few troops, our notion that patience and persuasion are more effective than displays of power has made the country deadlier for our soldiers, more dangerous for Iraqis and far less likely to achieve internal peace.

Americans value compromise; our enemies view it as weakness. We’re reluctant to use force. The terrorists and insurgents read that as cowardice.

The past week in Iraq brought the initial harvest of an old mistake – followed by a brand-new error.

On Sunday, in Baghdad, Kufa, Najaf and elsewhere, the followers of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, bolstered by his militia, rioted and killed seven U.S. soldiers and two El Salvadoran peacekeepers. It should never have happened.

Sadr’s militia should have been disarmed and disbanded in the earliest days of the occupation. Sadr himself should have been arrrested for his inflammatory preaching. But we were afraid to stir up trouble.

It’s hard to argue with that one in hindsight. Peters doesn’t offer any suggestions for what to do now, except to say we must now show the “guts” to “do what must be done.” O’Sullivan argues that the best course of action at this point is, essentially, what we’re doing:

That leaves the third option — which also happens to be the most practicable one in current circumstances — handing over power to a new Iraqi government and supporting it in its suppression of terrorism. A new Iraqi government will be in an improved version of the U.S. position a year ago.

It will be feared by its opponents; it will not have shown any psychological uncertainty in the face of “resistance;” and it will have the additional advantages of being (a) Iraqi, (b) at least aspiringly democratic, and (c) knowledgeable about all sorts of local conditions. This combination will give it the legitimacy and the moral self-confidence to crack down on any unrest that either last-ditch Saddamites or foreign jihadists try to mount. And it may well conclude that it needs such weapons as the internment of suspected terrorists without trial to restore order and prevent a civil war.

Of course, America will still be needed in force to support the new regime. Nor can Washington give a blank check endorsing any methods, however brutal, that it employs. Equally however, we should not seek to impose on Baghdad the kind of constitutional restraints that cripple U.S. police in their battles against conventional crime — and that hobble our own responses today to the murder of Americans in Fallujah.

This may indeed be the most practical solution to the immediate problem. It would not seem to be the best way to achieve the objective of establishing democratic governance in Iraq.

Amir Taheri, meanwhile, argues that things aren’t as bad as they seem and all that’s needed is a little appeasement.

But take a deep breath: This is not the start of the much-predicted Iraqi civil war.

The riots were orchestrated by a group led by Muqtada al-Sadr, a 30-year-old cleric nicknamed by his friends as “al-qunbulah” (the bomb). Sadr hails from one of the seven clans who have led Iraq’s Shiite community for two centuries. He was propelled to the top of the clan’s pyramid when most of its senior members, including his father and uncle, were murdered by Saddam Hussein or driven into exile.

But Muqtada is too young to claim the coveted theological title of “Marjaa al-Taqlid” (Source of Emulation) for himself. Nor can he circumvent the two dozen or so senior ayatollahs who dominate the Shiite seminaries throughout Iraq. He is, therefore, trying to make up for his lack of theological gravitas by flexing his political muscles.


The broader political picture also needs to be reviewed. Sadr’s militia must be disarmed, by force if necessary. But the young mullah and his supporters must also be offered a place in the emerging political spectrum in Iraq ahead of general elections.

Like all who use violence in pursuit of political aims, Sadr knows he would fare badly in any free election. This is why, shut out of the process, he will do all he can to disrupt elections. The best way to counter Sadr and other anti-democratic figures and groups in Iraq is to speed up the electoral process and bring forward the date at which Iraqis will be able to choose their rulers for the first time.

Somehow, rewarding mass murder seems like it may not be the best strategy.

Update: Black Hawk Down author Mark Bowden, drawing from the lessons of Mogadishu, adds

The worst answer the U.S. can make to such a message–which is precisely what we did in Mogadishu–is back down. By most indications, Aidid’s supporters were decimated and demoralized the day after the Battle of Mogadishu. Some, appalled by the indecency of their countrymen, were certain the U.S. would violently respond to such an insult and challenge. They contacted U.N. authorities offering to negotiate, or simply packed their things and fled. These are the ones who miscalculated. Instead the U.S. did nothing, effectively abandoning the field to Aidid and his henchmen. Somalia today remains a nation struggling in anarchy, and the America-haters around the world learned what they thought was a essential truth about the United States: Kill a few Americans and the most powerful nation on Earth will run away. This, in a nutshell, is the strategy of Osama bin Laden.

Many Americans despise the effort under way in Iraq. They opposed overthrowing Saddam Hussein by force, and disbelieved the rationale offered by President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair. There may well be a heavy political price to pay for the mistakes and exaggerations; President Bush faces a referendum in just seven months. But however that election turns out, and however imperfectly we have arrived at this point, the facts on the ground in Iraq remain. Saddam is gone and Iraq, thanks to U.S. intervention, is struggling toward a new kind of future. Its successful transformation into a peaceful, democratic state is in everyone’s interest except Saddam’s extended family and the Islamo-fascists. It’s time for opponents of the war to get real. Pictures like those we saw from Fallujah last week should horrify us, but they should also anger us and strengthen our resolve. The response should not be to back away from the task, but to redouble our efforts.

Which means recognizing that the gory carnival on the streets of Fallujah is not evidence of the mission’s futility, nor is it something to chalk up to foreign barbarity. It was deliberate and it must be answered deliberately. The lynching of African-Americans would have ended decades earlier if authorities had rounded up and punished those participating in crimes like the one in Marion. Somalia would be a vastly different place today if the U.S. and U.N. had not backed away in horror from the shocking display in Mogadishu.

The rebels in Iraq who ambushed those American security workers in Fallujah ought to be hunted down and brought to justice, but they are not the only ones responsible. The public celebration that followed was licensed and encouraged by whatever leadership exists in Fallujah. Whether religious or secular, its insult, warning, and challenge has been broadcast around the world. It must be answered. The photographic evidence should be used to help round up those who committed these atrocities, and those who tacitly or overtly encouraged it. A suitable punishment might be some weeks of unearthing the victims of Saddam Hussein’s mass graves.

Not much doubt about that.

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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. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Paul says:

    Let’s review-

    Every time we have been timid in our actions in Iraq it has cost us dearly. Every time we have been bold we have made major gains. Why is it up for debate?

    Remember when we put that 5 mile fence long razor wire around an entire city? What happened?

    We got the bad guys out, the good guys thanked us and golly, as an added bonus we found the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein.

    (again) Why is this up for debate?