US Vice President Richard Cheney's visit to Iraq on the fifth anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom was given scant coverage in the media. And yet it may go down in history as a pivotal moment in the transformation of post-Saddam Iraq into a beacon of democracy and freedom in the Arab world.
Hours after Cheney's departure, the Iraqi presidency council announced that it had approved the Iraqi parliament's provincial elections law. This long-awaited act will facilitate Iraq's development into a federal state and so cement the grassroots-level political progress that has made such strides in the last year as a result of the revised US counter-insurgency or "surge" campaign.
Five years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, with the majority of Americans convinced that the decision to invade Iraq was wrong, it is worth recalling that the decision to go to war in Iraq was immensely popular. In March 2003, 72 percent of Americans supported Bush's decision to invade the country and topple Saddam Hussein's regime. Moreover, public support for military action against Iraq was not an ephemeral phenomenon or simply a function of post-September 11 bellicosity.
Since Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Americans overwhelmingly perceived Iraq as a hostile country and Saddam Hussein specifically was seen, properly, as a US enemy. Throughout the 1990s there was bipartisan support for regime change in Iraq and indeed, regime change in Iraq was the stated policy of the Clinton administration. President Bill Clinton himself nearly went to war with Iraq in 1998 when Saddam suspended UN weapons inspections in the country.
At the same time, support for military action to propel regime change in Iraq was always controversial. Even after the September 11 attacks, and in the lead-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq, the public debate was fully engaged. Opponents of the strategy, who straddled both sides of the partisan divide, were outspoken in their criticism of the move even when public support for invasion was overwhelming.
After the Iraqi insurgency began in full force in 2004, the tenor of public debate on the Iraqi campaign became shrill, and largely irrelevant to the policy questions raised by the insurgency. Rather than discuss how to improve the situation in the country, opponents of the war devoted their energies to demonizing Bush and the war's supporters both within and outside the administration. The debate that ensued did not relate to how to win, but rather to who was to blame for the chaos increasingly engulfing the country.
The debate progressed in this fashion for three long years. For three years, opponents of the war demonized President George W. Bush and his supporters, and for three years, proponents of the war sought to minimize the importance of the insurgency in the hope that by denying its force, they could somehow wish it away.
The military strategy they chose for contending with the insurgency was based on their own denials of its strength. US forces were stationed in large bases outside population centers and only made their presence known when they went on specific raids based on specific intelligence. The hope was that by having a "small footprint," no one would notice they were there and would simply leave them alone. Of course, the consequence of the strategy was that the US essentially surrendered Iraqi villages and urban neighborhoods to the insurgents, and the Iraqi military forces they were training had no reason to take them seriously.
AS BUSH acknowledged this week in his address marking the fifth anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the decision to change the US strategy in Iraq was borne of desperation. By the end of 2006, with the Democratic victory in the Congressional elections, it was simply no longer possible to hide the fact that the US was surrendering the country to the jihadists.
In his words, "A little over a year ago, the fight in Iraq was faltering. Extremist elements were succeeding in their efforts to plunge Iraq into chaos. They had established safe havens in many parts of the country. They were creating divisions among the Iraqis along sectarian lines. And their strategy of using violence in Iraq to cause divisions in America was working – as pressures built here in Washington for withdrawal before the job was done."
For Bush then, the decision to take a gamble on the surge was the consequence of a real fear that the most important decision he made as president was about to go up in flames. For proponents of the war, the necessity of the surge – which adopted classic counter-insurgency doctrine by moving US forces out of large bases and into population centers to win the trust of the public and mobilize them to help flush out the insurgents – was dictated by their need to maintain their own credibility. Like Bush, they had staked their reputations on the war in Iraq. They understood that denial was no longer an option. To maintain their credibility, the US would actually have to engage in a long, hard slog.
Gen. David Petreaus, who commands coalition forces in Iraq, has frequently warned that military success in Iraq is not a long-term strategy for stabilizing the country. While inarguable, the fact is that without military success, which to date has enabled some 62% of Iraqis to say that they regard their security situation as good, there would be no way for Iraq to become politically stabilized.
The fact that today the Iraqi people are feeling optimistic about the future of their country is a consequence of the US's new surge strategy. The reason that the Iraqis are willing to make the hard choices necessary to facilitate Iraq's long-term political stability and liberalization as a multi-ethnic state is because today they believe that the US will not abandon them to the whims of their neighbors in Iran, Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia and the Shi'ite militias and al-Qaida cells in Iraq.
THE POSITIVE trends being seen today in Iraq are made all the more apparent when they are viewed against the situation in the Palestinian Authority.
Whereas Iraqi support for attacks against US forces has been declining steadily for the past year, in the PA, support for attacks against Israelis is at an all-time high. So too, while Shi'ite support for Shi'ite militias has dropped from 36% last spring to 22% today and support among Sunnis for the anti-al-Qaida "Awakening Groups" stands at 73%, support for terrorists among the Palestinians is steadily increasing: 84% of Palestinians support this month's massacre of yeshiva students in Jerusalem; 64% of Palestinians support the missile campaign against southern Israel.
In Iraq, the presidency council was forced by the US to accept the provincial election law to stabilize the country. The law is the result of a grassroots initiative of the Iraqis themselves. In contrast, in Palestinian society, leaders jockey for public support by increasing their radicalism. Fatah leader and PA President Mahmoud Abbas is today attempting to gain public support by adopting policies that are openly hostile to Israel and are based on a rejection of peaceful coexistence between Israel and a future Palestinian state.
This week The Jerusalem Post reported that Abbas has approved a plan to call for so-called Palestinian refugees to besiege Israel's borders with Lebanon, Gaza, Syria and Jordan on Israel's 60th Independence Day in May. The plan also calls for Americans, Europeans and Canadians of Palestinian descent to converge on Israel by air and sea that day in an attempt to force Israel to accept millions of foreign-born Arabs into the country.
This plan makes clear that as far as endgames are concerned, Abbas envisions a future without Israel that bears little distinction from Hamas's strategic aim of destroying the Jewish state. Not surprisingly, then, Abbas and his associates in Fatah are intensifying their efforts to reinstate a Fatah-Hamas government throughout Jude
a, Samaria and Gaza ahead of the Arab League summit in Syria scheduled for March 29.
In the midst of all of this, the Democratic-controlled US Congress approved a Bush administration request to transfer $150 million to the PA's treasury. This move was a reflection of the bipartisan support enjoyed by the Bush administration's efforts to oversee negotiations between the Olmert-Livni-Barak government and Abbas towards the establishment of a Palestinian state in Judea, Samaria, Gaza and Jerusalem by the end of the year.
The root of the great disparity between Bush's willingness to gamble on the surge to prevent failure in Iraq and his unwillingness to change course on his policy towards the Palestinians when it is clear that his strategy of establishing a Palestinian state is only strengthening jihadists is found in the absence of public debate in Washington on the feasibility of the US Palestinian strategy. The fact is that for the past 15 years, since the US first embraced the PLO as a peace partner for Israel, there has been no significant political debate in the US regarding the reasonableness of the strategy of appeasing the Palestinians by pressuring Israel not to defend itself from attack and empowering the Palestinians with financial assistance and military training.
AND, OF course, the same is true in Israel. It is unclear whether the Americans have prevented Israeli leaders from accepting that the two-state paradigm is a failed paradigm, or if Israeli leaders have convinced the Americans not to accept the failure of the paradigm. Probably both have contributed to the current policy paralysis in Jerusalem and Washington alike.
What is clear is that in the absence of such a debate, unlike the situation in Iraq, no significant bloc of policymakers or politicians in Washington feels like it has a stake in the policy's failure. As a consequence, year in and year out, the US promotes a policy that has no chance of succeeding. And year in and year out, as the Palestinians become increasingly supportive of jihad, administration officials make increasingly absurd statements about the need to empower them still further. So it is that this week US Ambassador Richard Jones told the Post that Jews will just have to leave Jerusalem because the US opposes building Jewish neighborhoods beyond the 1949 armistice lines in the city and young families cannot afford increasingly expensive existing housing in the city.
One could say that the tentative progress of democracy in Iraq is the consequence of an engaged, democratic debate in America that forced people to make decisions and forced the administration to contend with reality.
It is similarly due to the absence of such a debate about the failure of the US's attempts to appease the Palestinians that forces of terror and tyranny are on the rise in Ramallah and Gaza as Israel debates mindlessly about whether residents of the South will just have to live with daily missile attacks in their living rooms and kindergartens and massacres in their schools, or whether something lasting might be done about it.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.