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How to Win in Iraq

And how to lose.
Opinion Journal FEDERATION, Commentary, March 29, 2007 by Arthur Herman,

Historian, Arthur Herman, who has taught history at George Mason University and Georgetown University, is the author of a number of historical books including The Idea of Decline in Western History and To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World. In his article, How to Win in Iraq and how to lose, Herman gives his assessment of the war in Iraq. He uses the French military’s late 1950’s experience in Algeria and America’s experience in Viet Nam as historical comparatives and ties together the necessary elements for successfully fighting a war against a gorilla-style insurgency including the role ‘home front’ perceptions play. In part, Mr. Herman writes,

[...]

In fourth-generation warfare, whoever seems to own the future wins. To this day, thanks to Gille Pontecorvo's celebrated and highly propagandized 1967 film, most people assume that "the battle of Algiers" was an FLN [insurgency’s] victory when in fact it was anything but. Similarly, most people believe that the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam was a major setback for the United States, for so it was successfully portrayed in the media; in fact, it crippled the Viet Cong as an insurgency. The same happened more recently in the battle of Falluja in 2005, where our eradication of a vicious jihadist network was presented almost entirely in terms of too many American casualties and too much "collateral damage."

Thus far, the antiwar forces in both the United States and Europe have been greatly successful in presenting the Iraqi future in terms of an inevitable, and richly deserved, American defeat. Not even positive results on the ground have deterred them from pressing their case for withdrawal, or from winning influential converts in the heart of the U.S. Congress. If they succeed in their ultimate goal of forcing a withdrawal, they will take their place in another "long line," joining the shameful company of those who compelled the French to leave Algeria in disgrace and to stand by as the victorious FLN conducted a hideous bloodbath, and of those who compelled America to leave Vietnam under similar circumstances and to similar effect.

Unlike the French in Algeria, the United States is in Iraq not in order to retain a colony but to help create a free, open and liberal society in a part of the world still mired in autocracy and fanaticism. Will we stay long enough to defeat the jihadists, to engage Iraqis in the process of modern nation-building, and to ease the transition to a free society? Or will we quit before the hard work is done, leaving this vital part of the world to become an al Qaeda sanctuary, bathed in chaos, anarchy, and blood? As the polls suggest, a large constituency at home is waiting to learn the answer to this question, and so is a much larger constituency abroad.

But time is running short."Act quickly," Gen. Petraeus wrote in January 2006, "because every army of liberation has a half-life." This is true not only in the field but at home. James Thurber once said that the saddest two words in the English language are "too late." Terrible as it is to think that our surge may have come too late, it is much more terrible to think that feckless politicians, out of whatever calculation, may pull the plug before the new approach is fully tested.

And terrible not only for Iraqis. For the French, the price of failure in Algeria was the collapse of one Republic and a permanent stain on the next--along with the deep alienation of the French military from the political establishment that it believed (with considerable justification) had betrayed it. Here at home, it took the American military almost a decade and a half to recover its confidence and resiliency after the failure and humiliation of Vietnam. How we would weather another and even more consequential humiliation is anybody's guess; but the stakes are enormous, and the clock is ticking.


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