Jewish World Review April 29, 2004 / 8 Iyar, 5764

E. Thomas McClanahan

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Let's reward the Iraqi terrorists — they deserve it | Iraq is in flames; the war is lost; the Bush administration is oblivious; the Iraqis hate us; the world hates us; we're staring at a disaster; we should have stayed home; we've blundered into another Vietnam; it's time to cut and run.

That's the daily message from many of our hand-wringing politicians and TV talking heads, and it's becoming a demoralizing and pathetic spectacle. Few of those making the Vietnam comparison seem to grasp that what's at stake in Iraq is far more critical than what was at stake in Southeast Asia.

The last few weeks of war news have been disheartening: an uprising in Fallujah, coinciding with attacks by the militia of a renegade Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr; our own troops, found abusing Iraqi prisoners in violation of every principle for which we fight; Americans on the left calling more insistently for immediate withdrawal, and now there are scattered signs that even some on the right have gone wobbly.

All of the above is a reminder that in any serious projection of U.S. force, the biggest source of potential weakness isn't American public opinion or the determination of our foes. No: The weakest link is the political culture of Washington.

Over the last several weeks, the national capital has become a hive of second-guessers eager to gain political advantage from every setback. In the media, many still seem to operate from the trite, two-step syllogism of post-Vietnam thinking: (1) If those we fight do something unexpected, (2) we must be losing.

These are the same people who concluded that Afghanistan was a quagmire just before the Taliban collapsed, and dismissed the invasion of Iraq as a military disaster because of unexpected attacks by suicidal Fedayeen. Excuse me, but when irregular forces stop hiding and fight, what usually happens is they're cut to pieces - as they're being cut to pieces in Iraq today.

Wars have a habit of unfolding in unexpected ways, and this one has presented more than its share of unpleasant surprises. The failure to find weapons of mass destruction was an embarrassment, although Monday's revelation that a nerve agent was released in a roadside explosion was a reminder that those weapons did exist. The question is what happened to them.

Still, the uprising in Fallujah has been finessed, at least for now. And the coalition has played its hand deftly in the Shiite south by first allowing religious leaders to isolate al-Sadr before moving against his militia.

In the middle of all this came the grisly video showing the beheading of Nick Berg. It was, as they say, a "teaching moment," a reminder of what we're up against. Here's a question for those who see Iraq as separate from the war on terror: Do you seriously believe we can make any headway against such opponents without fundamentally changing the Middle East?

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Iraq was never likely to become a placid New England township. Its path to democracy will be a long, messy muddle. But it's about time that the Washington hive stop obsessing about the costs while ignoring the opportunities_not to mention the more colossal risks of failure. Democratic seeds planted in Iraq will put serious pressure on every regime in Iraq's neighborhood.

Those now crying for immediate withdrawal would make the sacrifice of our troops meaningless and repeat the kind of betrayal we perpetrated in Vietnam, when Congress cut off funding and left the South Vietnamese to fend for themselves.

Viewed in hindsight, Vietnam - where I served from late 1968 to the summer of 1969 - was not as strategically significant as many believed at the time. Our involvement began a decade or so after China's fall to communism and the rise of Castro in Cuba. Around the world, democracy seemed embattled, communism ascendant. Vietnam seemed another place where communism had to be stopped.

The strategic significance of Iraq is much clearer. Were we to "cut and run," Iraq would become Afghanistan writ large, a breeding ground for terrorists, a land riven by civil war and threatened by invasion. Nothing would do more to embolden the terrorists and make us more vulnerable.

I wrote recently about Iraqi "bloggers," whose personal journals on the Internet offer glimpses of Iraqi life and their hopes for the future. On a recent trip to southern Iraq, a Baghdad dentist named Mohammed (writing at ) described a rally in Samawah in support of the coalition; Iraqi drivers griping about roadblocks and a motorist's retort: Don't blame the Americans, blame "those bastards who plant bombs on the roads"; and a TV broadcast in which a woman stood up in a district council meeting and began shouting at the chairman. Her demand: equal status with the men.

This is the human face of Iraq, an image largely absent in the daily media coverage. Mohammed's mission is to provide a counterweight to the "bad pictures" in the media, and remind his readers that Iraq has "moved tens of years forward in a matter of months" and "broken the chains of a long dark past."

In Iraq, national-security and humanitarian objectives have merged. Cut and run? That would be a betrayal of million of Iraqis - and ourselves.

E. Thomas McClanahan is a member of the Kansas City Star editorial board. Comment by clicking here.


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