- Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who sees the mounting
tragedy of Iraq with greater clarity than anyone else in the United States
Senate, chose in his latest analysis to draw on Lawrence of Arabia. Some
eighty years ago T.E. Lawrence summed up the British situation in Iraq
with " We are today not far from a disaster." Lawrence was looking
at Mesopotamia where at the time the British were only recently embroiled,
and they barely understood the people, their practices, problems and preferences.
Britain would be expelled before they figured them out. Only a few of
our people in Iraq today, up through top management, have more than a limited
understanding of post Saddam Iraq or its people, and they, only a few months
into the fray, already are experiencing the guerrilla tactics that ultimately
toppled British rule. At least half their problem, however, may be the
fact that Washington itself is locked in a guerrilla war of recrimination
over the information, analysis, and motives that propelled us into Iraq
in the first place.
- Each battle, perversely, will be prolonged and complicated
by the other. More than they should be our people in Iraq will be left
to their own devices to design and apply a satisfactory exit strategy.
Meanwhile, the growing roster of American and other coalition casualties
will sharpen the Washington debate about how and why we got into this mess.
United Nations, European, Middle Eastern, and other relationships, already
disturbed by the hawkish and headstrong habits of current US leadership,
will be rattled by events in both battles. In both places, people are
in for a long and often bloody conflict that is certain not to end before
the next Presidential election, and may go on for years afterward.
- Both wars are in a sense unique in our history. To be
sure, little more than a decade ago we fought Gulf War I, but that war
was not accompanied by the extreme doubts and misgivings of the current
engagement. The rationale for that war seemed simpler and clearer, but
mainly it was not complicated by prolonged debate, and it was not followed
by military occupation of the country. Americans basically were agreed
on finding someone to punish for 9-11, but the run up to Gulf War II was
murky from the start because international agreement on the need for war
never existed. There was immediate disagreement about the facts of the
situation and the need for action. Pointed, even aggressive, US determination
to go it alone discouraged full and proper examination of the issues.
Moreover, plans to occupy and run the country after the brief war were
not well thought out, as recent reports indicate they were products of
uncoordinated planning in Washington, and they have proven very difficult
- In real time the entire Iraq venture has been assiduously
tracked in both conventional print and electronic media as well as on the
Internet. But the Internet has added depth, complexity, candor, and directness
to public participation in the Iraq discussion. Until quite recently those
qualities were largely missing from print and electronic media.
- On the Internet, as in all other media, much that is
said or written is of uncertain reliability, but little can be hidden,
and every new development or thought is quickly circulated. Both truth
and fiction are transmitted at light speed. Error is enormously difficult
to filter out. Interactions of > mainstream media and the Internet are
- The result is an entirely new kind of national debate.
The Internet provides fertile ground for soft (anonymous) and hard (declared)
whistle blowers. Would-be presidential candidates, especially Howard Dean,
are discovering that the free-spirited Internet has a power that is denied
to managed media, because publication is often not driven by editorial
- Emergent guerrilla warfare in Iraq and at home will be
watched with excruciating sharpness on this national screen. Americans
now know about and feel each US casualty every day in a way that never
occurred before. And with this will grow a new kind of accountability for
American leadership. The gross and often hidden losses of Vietnam will
be neither possible to conceal nor tolerable. Failure will be defined by
how events play on this stage and not by the merits of cases or the preferences
of policy makers. Iraq has already seen rapid changes in battle and occupation
management. There will be others if Iraqi guerrilla resistance persists,
and Washington ability to justify this war will become increasingly limited.
- In the guerilla war of Washington, truth will be the
most frequent casualty. Much is at stake in the eighteen month run up to
the 2004 Presidential election. The hawks who led the President into Iraq
with hasty and faulty logic now find themselves having to reinvent all
their arguments, and the President himself is finding that his popularity,
which always was based on flimsy underpinnings of the War on Terrorism,
is rapidly shrinking. Further shrinkage of his popularity will be a key
goal of Washington guerrillas, not only Democrats. Mainstream media already
have turned on leadership and are hammering away at the factual basis for
war on Iraq. Well ahead of mainstream media, the Internet was out front,
pointing to the flaws and falsehoods in the Bush administration case.
- The two wars share an overarching tragedy. 9-11 brought
a unity of purpose and community of interest to the American people that
had not been seen since World War II. Bush administration unilateralism
was already chipping away at this foundation before the war, while deepening
"postwar" guerilla warfare in Iraq is likely to be more divisive
than unifying in Washington. The war at home unfortunately continues to
be more about how we got into it than about how to extricate ourselves
gracefully and prudently from it.
- Both the conduct of an exit strategy from Iraq and the
proper focus on a range of domestic issues such as debt, taxes, employment,
and health care will suffer. Ultimately, we will be stuck with a war we
did not need and a political debate that, where real national interests
are concerned, is often beside the point.
- The simple fact is that even if the entire rationale
for our presence in Iraq was a colossal Republican hawk deception, we now
have a very real American presence in Iraq. What they do there not only
places many young Americans in harm's way, and continues to erode our country's
reputation, but also affects the lives of millions of Iraqi people.
- It will truly be a disaster if Washington remains so
unfocused that it cannot effectively support our civil and military forces
in Iraq. In the opinion of many informed and knowledgeable observers, we
have a far too small cadre of Americans and coalition supporters in Iraq
doing the vital work of extricating us from the situation. Various reports
indicate they are finding some success among the Kurds in the north and
the Shiites in the south, but the Sunni Muslim tribes, not necessarily
all devotees of Saddam, are yet far from pacified, and the Kurds and Shiia
will stay on board only so long as they think their goals are being served.
- The resulting numbers define the challenge for our civil
and military forces. Most estimates place the number of Sunni Muslims
in Iraq at about 30% of the country's population or roughly 7.5 million
people. Recent > reports indicate we have about 600 civilians in country
administrator Paul Bremer's team, and about 150,000 US and coalition military
forces in country. The ratio is about one coalition force member for
each 50 Iraqis in a territory a third the size of California. If the Iraqis
are cooperative or at least passive and the forces are well supported,
that is > no problem. If they are not, the situation can be difficult,
if not hopeless, and it will involve constant American and Iraqi casualties.
- Casualties will harden the Washington debate, because
they will unsettle the country. No one takes the death of a single soldier,
marine, sailor, or airman lightly. By killing a few of the coalition forces,
guerrillas in Iraq can feed the fires of guerrilla warfare in Washington.
As Palestine has shown repeatedly, a few extremists can maintain an enemy's`
civil population in a constant state of anxiety.
- As our summer and the Iraqi situation settle into dog
days, we must keep these facts in mind: If our forces in Iraq are to have
the dual mission of maintaining order and restoring the infrastructure
of civil society in Iraq, we do not have nearly enough people there. However,
no matter how large our numbers, the extremists, whether Sunni, Shiia or
Kurd, will take a toll. This puts an enormous premium on finding ways to
pacify the Sunnis, but it puts an equal priority on an exit strategy for
earliest possible departure. Bremer's team would probably appreciate being
left alone to figure out how best to carry out these two missions; thus
they may well welcome Washington' s internal guerrilla warfare.
- The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer
of the US Department of State. He will welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org