- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Will the United States win the peace in Iraq? And what does “winning” mean? Those are the mega-questions. And they are unlikely to be answered soon, and probably not even after Nov. 2, 2004 when voters will make their judgment.

First, a disclosure: This column predicted that waging the war in Iraq would prove easier than winning the peace. And it argued that the ultimate success of that war would be defined by how the peace turns out. To many, especially in the media, that battle is not going well.

The Bush administration reacted to this media criticism by launching a full-court public relations press over Iraq earlier this month. Complaining that the media reported only”badnews,” spokespersons from the president on down flooded the nation with “good news” from beleaguered Iraq. Electricity was at or above pre-war levels. Clean water was running. Oil was flowing. Schools and hospitals were reopened and working. And, outside the so-called Sunni Triangle in and around Baghdad, Iraq was largely secure and peaceful.

All of that is correct, or largely so. The Coalition Provisional Authority, under Ambassador L. Paul Bremer’s leadership, and U.S. and coalition military and civilians have performed extremely well under difficult conditions. However, whether or not these statistics and data points are good indications of what is really happening inside Iraq must be closely examined. Many journalists and reporters who were or are currently at work in Iraq have different views. Cited are concerns and even fears on the part of senior U.S. military officers that guerrilla attacks are increasing in ferocity, number and competence. Monday’s attacks that killed at least 35 in Baghdad reinforce that view. Fractures between and among the various ethnic, religious and tribal factions appear to be growing, not shrinking. The Iraqi Governing Council increasingly has a mind of its own. And, for more and more Iraqis, the occupation has already lasted too long.

The administration also has a credibility problem. The urgency for war in March seems to have lessened today. Neither the Iraqi public nor the Iraqi National Congress have lived up to the administration’s expectations of how quickly the transition of power in postwar Iraq to its citizens would occur. The vaunted weapons of mass destruction have not been found. Other bad press, such as the “outing” of Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s wife, a covert CIA agent, has not helped. And, memories of Vietnam linger.

Statistically, based on body counts, numbers of strategic hamlets pacified and tons of enemy supplies interdicted, we were winning that war in Vietnam. Yet, the press and not the Johnson White House recognized the truth. The lesson is clear. Bad news does not always mean inaccurate news.

Meanwhile, Congress is increasingly showing signs of bipartisan disgruntlement. The $87 billion bill is only a downpayment. No one knows how much more will be needed. The fight over lending or granting funds flows in part from the administration’s reluctance to consult more fully with Congress. And, as casualties mount, unless there is unambiguous progress in Iraq, over time support will erode. The presidential race will also provoke great controversy and allegations over how things are indeed going in Iraq.

So, what to do? This administration seems not to like outside advice. However, because the stakes are so large, perhaps a bit of soul-searching is essential, something we were incapable of doing during Vietnam. All the good work in putting Iraq together is vitally necessary. The dilemma is that all this work is not yet sufficient to make Iraq safe and secure. More must be done. At least three crucial actions must follow.

First, clear and viable means must be put in place now to help ensure that Iraq’s new government will endure under the rule of law and will not lapse back into some form of autocratic control absent a substantial and long-term external military presence to protect and prop up the regime.

Second, a sense of a coherent society must be created to undo the destructive effects of Ba’athist rule that purposely shattered Iraqi society in order to exercise near-total political power.

Third, endemic corruption in Iraq, also a sad legacy, must be effectively neutralized if success is to be achieved.

These three actions are both objectives and measures for “winning” in Iraq. The administration should take them as references and put concrete steps in train or under consideration to assure that a viable government will endure, a more coherent society will be formed and corruption will be curbed.

If the administration follows through, the prospects for prevailing will grow. If, however, the administration’s spin doctors continue to rely on static statistical metrics to rationalize progress, they will find that the operation may succeed. But the patient surely will not survive.

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