Saturday, February 28, 2004

A few days ago I returned from nearly three months in Baghdad helping to get the $18.6 billion reconstruction program off the ground. But my friends seem more interested in grilling me about why are we in Iraq. How much longer will we be there? Since weapons of mass destruction haven’t been found, did we go to war for the right reasons? Is Iraq another Vietnam?

Nearly everyone I talk to seems anxious to hear about life in Iraq, and most have preconceived ideas derived from what they hear and see on the media. It’s not my job to make on-the-spot corrections, but I try to convey my impressions without passion that often seem contrary to conventional wisdom.

My experiences are limited, so I’m hardly an expert. Nothing I say or write is likely to make Henry Kissinger nervous. But I observed war firsthand during 27 months in Vietnam and written about military matters much of my adult life. I haven’t seen any classified assessments, so I’m not intentionally giving away any state secrets when I state my views about Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Why are we in Iraq? In part, it was to counter a threat to peace in the region, given Saddam Hussein’s aggressive ambitions. Even if weapons of mass destruction haven’t been discovered, Saddam’s gang has been neutralized. But access to oil is also relevant. I didn’t really think seriously about this until I started to consider why the Japanese dispatched a team of humanitarians into the country, protected by well-armed forces of some 600 soldiers. The long-term answer is, presumably, to identify a friendly source of oil to fuel the industry of Japan.

If Japan has strategic interests, so does the West, the residual beneficiaries of Operation Iraq Freedom. Iraq has half the world’s known oil reserves under its endless sands. If Saudi Arabia and others in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) are willing to trade with the West, the same doesn’t apply necessarily to the terrorists groups anxious to take over the country in the name of Islamic fundamentalism. Those who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon could care less about keeping the American economy afloat. Rather, Osama bin Laden and crowd seem rather anxious to destroy us, even at the expense of suicidal volunteers.

Among friends I say that Iraq is the war I wanted in Vietnam but never quite had. I mean that we went into Vietnam in part to halt the expansion of communism, the so-called “domino theory.” When Saigon fell, the rest of the nations in the region did not collapse. Except in a few places like Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba, communism itself didn’t have long to live, one of the ironies of our age. But if we fail in Iraq, I believe that terrorists will rejoice everywhere with greater strength, and execute deliberate plans for the final assault on the West, giving vent to their wildest and most grotesque fantasies.

Again, it’s my impression that virtually all anti-Western terrorists groups are present in Iraq attacking us and our allies, lest they lose their right to claim revolutionary status. This is a zero-sum game. I see no opportunity for discussion or negotiation. Peace talks now would be no more conclusive than talks in Paris during the Vietnam era. Candidates for high office today who condemn our involvement in Vietnam rarely mention the ultimate losers include those who trusted us, rightly or wrongly, many suffering still from the holocaust that followed the collapse of Saigon in April 1975.

How long will we be in Iraq? I don’t have the slightest idea, but I think it will be some time before we know for sure if the seeds of democracy we’re planting today will flourish tomorrow. I recall the British were in Iraq for nearly 20 years, and left without leaving much of a footprint. Thanks to the media, the average Iraqi is aware of a better life around the corner, anxious to capture a corner of it without much delay. But visions are blurred and contradictory, as not all loyalties overlap. This doesn’t bode well for those who hope for a speedy resolution, whatever their vision. Tribal, religious and ethnic differences divide the nation, like it or not.

My prayer is that our massive reconstruction program, employing thousands of unemployed Iraqis, will start many thinking about the appeal of peaceful cooperation, rather than bloody competition. In my view, this could help define what we mean by winning the war. I’d rather have the Iraqis work together for a better, more secure future than spending their waking hours wondering what American target to attack next. Our soldiers and Marines provide the shield to begin this peaceful effort, making monumental sacrifices for the future, as others have done before them. Pride in our nation cannot be dismissed as chauvinism, lest some go to bare fists.

So what is my bottom line? I think we are in Iraq for precisely the right reasons, political, economic and moral. We may not know for many years if things work out as we hope. But if they do, it will be a lasting testament to our courage and conviction. This is the hope of most Americans, surely.


Mr. Krohn is deputy chief of public affairs of the Army. He just returned from Iraq as media adviser to Rear Adm. David Nash, U.S. Navy (Ret), director of the office in charge of infrastructure reconstruction.

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