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May 03, 2004

FALLUJAH AND IRAQ: As I wrote this Friday, and as Andrew Sullivan notes today, it's very hard to tell what's going on. One school of thought is that it's a disaster, that we've chickened out, and that we're letting the enemy get away, literally, with murder. (That's Bill Quick's take, essentially). Another, typified by Belmont Club (here and here) is that the Marines are, in fact, doing pretty well in a messy situation in Fallujah without producing the wholesale massacre that is, of course, well within our power to produce at any moment. Killing lots of people is always an option, and it's one that our enemies can't take away. But that's not what we want to do. (See this email at Andrew Sullivan's for more along those lines.)

The same is true for Iraq overall. John Kerry got a lot of flak for his talk about "stability" as opposed to democracy -- and probably rightly -- but we're not going to turn Iraq into Connecticut, or even Turkey, overnight. It's going to take time, and there will be lots of ups and downs along the way. There's a tendency to get fixated on whatever's happening at the moment, like Fallujah, and stop thinking about the big picture, especially as "big picture" information is very hard to come by, and often from suspect sources.

The question is what to do. Robert Kagan -- taking essentially the Bill Quick line -- thinks that the Bush Administration is too casualty phobic (thanks, Ted!) and that its fears have led to a loss of will that is inspiring our enemies and dispiriting our friends.

Regardless of what's going on on the ground, I think that the combination of anti-war posturing by the likes of Koppel and Kennedy at home, and uncertainty from the Bush Administration, is having the effect on morale that Kagan describes. And Kagan's right here:

The truth is, if the goal is stability, that the alternatives are no easier to carry out and no less costly in money and lives than the present attempt to create some form of democracy in Iraq. The real alternative to the present course is not stability at all but to abandon Iraq to whatever horrible fate awaits it: chaos, civil war, brutal tyranny, terrorism or more likely a combination of all of these -- with all that entails for Iraqis, the Middle East and American interests.

That is what President Bush has been saying all along. But Bush himself is the great mystery in this mounting debacle. His commitment to stay the course in Iraq seems utterly genuine. Yet he continues to tolerate policymakers, military advisers and a dysfunctional policymaking apparatus that are making the achievement of his goals less and less likely.

And it's hard to fix that sort of thing in an election year. But it's very, very important that we get this right. My concern is that if we don't, we'll have a much bigger war on our hands, in which we'll be forced to adopt the approach to casualties -- our own, and others' -- that we took in World War Two. That was right then, and I suppose it could be right in some horrific future situation, but I'd far rather avoid that situation.

But it's important to remember, as I say above, that Fallujah isn't the war on terror; it's not even Iraq. Indeed, it's interesting how little we hear about the rest of Iraq, which is a pretty good indication that things are better everywhere else. There's a lot of excessive gloom -- much of it driven by people with an agenda, foreign or domestic -- out there.

As Belmont Club notes: "That these elementary and almost self-evident observations have heartened readers is testimony not so much to the optimism of the Belmont Club but to the gloom that has descended on the campaign, or at least its treatment in the media." That doesn't mean that it's not important to point out problems, but it does mean that it's important to retain perspective. This war is about American will to continue as much as it is about particular events in Iraq. It's worth remembering that, too.

UPDATE: If this report is true, it's probably a sign of too much political interference.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Tacitus is sure that we've gone too soft in Fallujah, and that the result will be bad. Blackfive basically agrees, but many of his commenters don't. And Michael Totten is unabashedly confused. Meanwhile Mickey Kaus notes that quick elections seem to be working in some parts of Iraq, and suggests that we try to implement them by July everywhere: "Do you really want to try to make it to January while holding out for Baker v. Carr-level fairness? The results so far using ration cards seem to be crudely representative and legitimate (and non-fundamentalist)." Excellent point, and I'm inclined to favor the swift approach.

I still don't know what I think about Fallujah, but it's certainly the case that where the United States has gotten in trouble in my lifetime, it's usually been because we didn't push things to a military conclusion when we could have. Fred Kaplan, on the other hand, thinks that developments in Fallujah may bode well for the future, as a too-heavy-handed approach becomes more deft. Go figure. I sure hope he's right. (Betsy Newmark probably has the best advice: "These armchair generals should just cool it and wait to see how things turn out." Newzilla has a related post.)

Steven Den Beste has a much longer analysis of the overall situation, in which he says that we're being "too nice," and concludes:

More generally, when will the Bush Administration finally get around to dealing with the core problem facing us: the Saudi deal-with-the-Wahhabist-Devil and their ongoing practice of providing funding to support export of Wahhabist extremism all over the world? Before this war can end, that is one of the things which has to stop.

The biggest long term benefit from crushing the Taliban, crushing Saddam, and rewarding Qaddafi, is to establish a strong precedent for others in terms of what they can expect from us. But by letting Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia get away with murder (and in that I'm not speaking figuratively), we blow that precedent.

Instead, we establish an entirely different one: we make clear that we can be mollified by empty gestures and insincere promises. That is not the message we want to send to the governments of that region; it will ultimately cause far more damage than we would suffer even if all three of those nations were ultimately taken over by radical Islamists.

What I sincerely hope is not the case is that Bush and/or his campaign strategists have decided that we Americans can be mollified by empty gestures, insincere promises and tough talk. This war isn't even close to being over, and this is no time for Bush to start taking his foreign policy cues from Senator Kerry.

Indeed. As someone wisely told another President Bush, this is no time to go wobbly.