Jewish World Review Nov. 17, 2003 / 22 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Zev Chafets

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Give Iraq a strongman | Gen. John Abizaid, commander of the U.S. forces in the Middle East, says he faces no more than 5,000 anti-American insurgents in Iraq.

Gen. Abizaid is wrong.

If, on Monday, he magically killed all 5,000 of the enemies on his list, another 5,000 would spring up by Tuesday morning. Maybe even 6,000. A recent CIA report warns that support for the guerrillas is growing.

This is not, as Bush-bashers suppose, because Iraqis can't take life under an incompetent American occupation. They endured far worse under Saddam Hussein without so much as a peep. No, if people are drawn to the guerrillas, it's for a simple reason: They think the guerrillas are going to win.

Iraqis, like other Middle Easterners, are raised to follow the leader. For decades they followed Saddam, not because he represented them or their interests, but because he had authority. In Fertile Crescent politics, the strongest man always wins.

President Bush, a normally astute judge of reality, evidently thinks he can change the rules by establishing a government in Baghdad that is of, for and by the people. But he can't. The very concept is alien to Iraqi culture.

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That's not to say Iraq can't be governed in a way congenial to U.S. security and economic interests. It can, but only if it is done according to local custom. The current phrase is "putting an Iraqi face" on the government in Baghdad. But that doesn't mean slapping a fake mustache on civil administrator Paul Bremer. It requires installing an authentic ruler.

Authentic is not the same as popular. It is also not a synonym for representative. Ethnic coalitions make sense in the Bronx, not in Baghdad. The lands that comprise modern-day Iraq have been ruled for millennia by local strongmen, usually backed by outside powers.

If America wants to retain control over Iraq, it has to conform to this model. The ideal proxy would be enlightened (i.e. unshakably pro-American), benign and ruthless - someone along the lines of Jordan's late King Hussein.

This new ruler should be equipped with a set of basic governmental principles - no anti-American rhetoric, no foreign alliances, no advanced weaponry, no oil boycotts, no unnecessary brutality - and set free to run Iraq.

U.S. troops should be withdrawn from the cities and garrisoned in the countryside as unseen but never forgotten enforcers.

What justifies such a stark intervention in the affairs of another country? Certainly not empire for its own sake. There is nothing of importance in Iraq except oil, and that can be bought cheaply on the open market (see the ruling principles above). No, this is about security.

In the past, it didn't matter if religious fanatics or crazed radicals ruled in distant capitals. They could only hurt their own people or their neighbors. But that's no longer true. Within a few years, even tin-pot dictators will be able to lay hands on weapons capable of killing millions.

That concern is at the foundation of the Bush doctrine of preemption. Iraqis may not like it, but they understand it, because it is based on the selfish exercise of power. In America's position, they would act the same way. What they won't understand is Bush's high-flown rhetoric about creating a constitutional democracy. To Iraqis, this sounds dangerously delusional.

If the American mission is really to install the practices and values of Western liberty, it will fail. Nobody knows this better than the Iraqis themselves. And no one better understands the price of being on the losing side.

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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