Sunday, December 14, 2003

Think tank skull sessions are where scholars let their hair down as they brain storm ideas and options — off the record. Long before the war started last March, Iraq became an obsession. Naysayers invariably wound up as the minority view. Weapons of mass destruction and Saddam’s ability to rain death and destruction on U.S. and British troops at 45 minutes notice usually swayed arm chair strategists — both pro and con — in favor of war sooner rather than later.

When the balloon finally went up, even those who had argued war on Iraq would (1) detract from the real counterterrorist war in Afghanistan, and (2) attract would-be jihadis, or holy warriors, from all over the Muslim world, fell into step. Once troops are committed to regime change and the maintenance of a unitary Iraqi state under democracy, failure, they argued convincingly, was not an option. Apart from minuscule STOP WAR demos, the country was in lockstep with president Bush. A two- to five-year presence for U.S. troops became conventional wisdom.

It wasn’t long before cracks surfaced on the faade of unity. The ardor of armchair warriors gradually cooled as 24/7 television news kept updating casualties since President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” on May 1. Equally disheartening is the recruitment of jihadi volunteers from Muslim countries and among young unemployed North Africans, Middle Eastern Arabs, Pakistanis and Indonesians, existing hand-to-mouth in the poverty-stricken suburbs of major European cities. Efforts to indenture potential jihadis have been detected in Paris, Lyon, Marseilles, London, Birmingham, Manchester, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Genoa, Naples, Barcelona and Madrid.

European counterintelligence agents have uncovered a number of specific recruitment cases of jobless teenagers living in near slum conditions — e.g., St. Denis, a suburb of Paris — with both parents subsisting on unemployment compensation. “Such youngsters become putty in the hands of a silver-tongued activist imam,” said a ranking French counterintelligence official.

As this writer stated flatly at a think tank kaffeeklatsch the Magnificat that failure is not an option, a Yale professor, a hawk to begin with, dissented. “Failure is an option,” the political scientist said. “In fact, it was the conviction that failure was not an option that kept us escalating in Vietnam until we reached 540,000 American troops in the country. Now we are told that the geopolitical consequences of failure in Iraq would be incalculable; that Iraq would descend into chaos and civil war; that rogue states would proliferate; and that Israel would be at risk.”

Another professor, this one from Harvard, responded this could indeed become a self-fulfilling prophecy unless a U.S. withdrawal were carefully calibrated in conjunction with the empowerment of an Iraqi regime that would be a cross between Egypt and Algeria — i.e., a benevolent pro-Western strongman, sharp-edged Iraqi army, elections and a pliant parliament where the strongman’s party would enjoy a majority.

The kind of democracy the neoconservatives had in mind cannot be achieved in the short time before we must begin our withdrawal. Staying the course is not a policy. We are not equipped to do nation-building. Japan and Germany after World War II were system-changing. The nations were already there before the war. What happens if Mr. Bush is not re-elected? We must have a strategy on what to do next in consolidating a change of systems that would be pursued by the new administration irrespective of party affiliation.

There are lucubrations on the same theme throughout the think tank community. What appears to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s hump was a spate of stories about the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) advisers helping train U.S. Special Forces in aggressive counterinsurgency operations in Iraq. IDF veterans of urban warfare have also been sent to Fort Bragg, N.C., to pass on their skills in suppressing Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and other Middle Eastern terrorist groups. Some Iraqi villages suspected of giving aid and succor to the resistance are already wrapped in concertina razor-wire.

These stories have made headlines throughout the Muslim world, confirming long-held beliefs that the U.S. and Israel are in league against Islam. Egyptian and Gulf state newspapers are reporting as fact U.S. Special Forces commando raids inside Syria designed to collar foreign volunteers before they get across the border into Iraq.

The Beirut Daily Star headlined, “West Bank east: Americans in Iraq make war the Israeli way.” Perception throughout the Middle East is of another Vietnam. As preposterous as this sounds to veterans of Vietnam and both Iraqi wars during the past 12 years, the Q word (quagmire) is being uttered, sotto voce, with increasing frequency.

America’s enemies can now see the U.S. going out of its way to antagonize erstwhile friends and new allies. One day, former Secretary of State James Baker III is enlisted by Mr. Bush to persuade France, Germany and Russia to extend debt forgiveness to Iraq (for IOUs signed by the Saddam regime). Next day, the Pentagon decides the same three powers are now excluded from the bidding process of $18.5 billion in Iraqi reconstruction contracts.

If the Bush administration’s enemies conclude the U.S. will soon find itself increasingly isolated in Iraq, all the Iraqi resistance has to do is to steadily increase asymmetric warfare pressure until next year’s presidential campaign. Then, Howard Dean, taking a leaf from Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1952 campaign, may be tempted to say, “I shall go to Iraq.” In any event, Iraq is destined to occupy center stage in 2004.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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