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Jewish World Review Sept. 15, 2003 / 18 Elul, 5763

Michael Barone

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Iraq in historical perspective |
Two tragic bombings in baghdad and Najaf last month and the continuing attacks on American soldiers in some parts of Iraq have led many to call for more troops in Iraq or for Americans to withdraw. Cries are heard that we are in a Vietnam-like quagmire.

Those inclined to make straight-line extrapolations from the events of a few news cycles should read some history. Margaret Mac- Millan's Paris 1919 shows how the Allied leaders who gathered at the peace conference in Paris were largely clueless about how to reconstruct the defeated nations after World War I. Jean Edward Smith's biography of Gen. Lucius Clay reveals that the first time he read the government's plans for post-World War II Germany was on the flight over there to take charge. William Manchester's American Caesar shows that Douglas MacArthur, however knowledgeable about the Far East, did not have clear ideas on how to rule postwar Japan. Clay and MacArthur improvised, learned from experience, made mistakes, and corrected them, adjusted to circumstances. It took time: West Germany did not have federal elections until 1949, four years after surrender; the peace treaty with Japan was not signed until 1951.

Today's media have a zero-defect standard: the Bush administration should have anticipated every eventuality and made detailed plans for every contingency. This is silly. A good second-grade teacher arrives in class with a lesson plan but adapts and adjusts to pupils' responses and the classroom atmosphere. A good occupying power does the same thing.

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Good news. The media also have the wrong standard for what is news. It is news when there is a fatal accident at Disneyland and not news when there is not. But Iraq is not Disneyland. In a country that is occupied after decades of a brutal dictatorship, good news is news. Yet with only a few exceptions--see Michael Gordon's story in the New York Times on the 101st Airborne in northern Iraq--the good news is not being told. More than 6,000 Iraqi civil affairs units--local governments--have been set up. Hospitals have been reopened. A court system has been set up. Mistakes, inevitable in a chaotic world, are being corrected: A Baathist leader put in charge in Najaf was soon removed.

Reports from soldiers on the ground, circulating widely on the Internet but seldom if ever appearing in old media, indicate that the large majority of Iraqis are friendly and helpful and glad that American troops are there. Those may be anecdotes; data come from a poll conducted in August by American Enterprise in four major cities, including one in the so-called Sunni triangle. No one should dwell on the precise percentages, which are subject to error, but by wide margins the results show that Iraqis are optimistic about the future and unfavorably disposed to Osama bin Laden, the Iranian mullahs, and, especially, the Baathist remnants. We cannot be sure exactly how Iraqis' minds are changing. But the evidence suggests they are receptive to representative democracy and hostile to Palestinians and other Arabs who supported their oppressor.

Nor do the two bombings of August prove we need many more U.S. or foreign troops. Terrorist bombings are not statistical events that can be prevented by statistically proportionate responses. That was the mistake of Lyndon Johnson and his military advisers who believed that some larger number of U.S. troops--no one was sure how many--would defeat the Communists in Vietnam. The plan must be to turn over the task of preventing criminal and terrorist violence to the Iraqis, and that is what the Pentagon and other agencies planned for in the months leading up to the war.

The plans have been adapted in response to events and circumstances, as they should be, and things are proceeding much more rapidly than they did in Germany or Japan: A new currency will be introduced October 1; the governing council has been appointed and is setting in motion a constitutional convention; and a civil defense corps of 15,000 Iraqi recruits should be in place by December. Put in historic perspective, the good things that are happening in Iraq are impressive, even if old media think they are no more newsworthy than an accident-free day at Disneyland.

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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone