Saturday, June 19, 2004

Americans are an impatient lot. We require movies on demand, fast food from drive-through windows, express oil changes, rapid air travel and high-speed Internet service. “Just-in-time” deliveries have eliminated the need for expensive warehousing and inventories. When we want it — we want it now.

Our eagerness for instant results has served as a stimulus to the U.S. economy, inspired scientific progress and promoted advances in technology. We now build homes and commercial structures in days and weeks that used to take months and years.

But when it comes to constructing institutions of democracy, the desire for immediate outcomes is a vice rather than a virtue. That was the case with our own radical experiment in representative government; and that’s the situation today in Iraq.

On June 30, the United States will hand over sovereignty in Iraq to an interim government. This temporary authority — an entity comprised of people selected by Iraqis, not Americans or the United Nations — will in turn arrange for nationwide elections in January 2005. Last week, the interim Iraqi president, Ghazi al-Yawar, visited the United States, thanked the American people for the sacrifices we have made in liberating his country and offered assurances that, despite the difficulties, things are on track for a real democratic government in Baghdad. There is of course one pre-condition — the transition to democracy will only work as long as the U.S.-led coalition continues to stay the course.

Therein lies the rub — staying the course. According to recent public-opinion surveys, a majority of both the American people and the population of Iraq have lost patience with our efforts to bring democracy to Baghdad. Fifteen months after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdus Square, and six months after the cowering despot was dragged from a rat hole, most Iraqis and most Americans want U.S. troops out — now.

Set aside the fact that both U.S. and Iraqi polls sampled public opinion in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib prison fiasco and the attendant tidal wave of negative publicity. Disregard the stupidity of continuing congressional inquisitions that elevate the malfeasance of 15 or 20 prison guards and the incompetence of a handful of officers to the level of international scandal. Ignore the folly of the Coalition Provisional Authority wasting U.S. tax dollars on polls in such a poisonous environment. Forget any hope that the press might mention the fact that schools have been rebuilt, hospitals reopened, children inoculated and new businesses established. As long as Abu Ghraib remains the focal point of a hostile media, it is unlikely that public perception of the progress in Iraq will improve.

In addition to Abu Ghraib, the media is focusing on the desperate violence of the jihadists. During his June 17 press conference, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld answered a salvo of queries that suggested that because the violence is escalating, we should “cut our losses.”

Such a course of action is unthinkable. In his remarks at MacDill Air Force Base on June 16, President Bush reminded Americans that things in Iraq are likely to get worse before they get better. His comments reflect an awareness of reality that I hear from the troops on the ground in Ramadi and Fallujah — in units that I have covered during my three trips to Iraq for Fox News. Marines and soldiers there, many of them for the second time, acknowledge that the danger will continue to increase, right through the establishment of a new Iraqi government. They see the rash of terrorist attacks on Iraqi civilians and leadership targets as a sign of increasing desperation by foreign terrorists, tribal sheikhs and potent imams who will lose power once a democratic regime is installed in Baghdad.

Progress in Iraq was never going to be immediate. The global war on terrorism was never going to be won in Afghanistan alone. Mr. Rumsfeld recognized that when he referred to a “long hard slog.” Though it may be coming later than it should, it is important that the American people be reminded that the war, which the terrorists started on September 11, 2001, will not be over next week, next month or even next year. That’s the kind of message Franklin D. Roosevelt repeated time and again during our last war of national survival — World War II. It is the kind of message that Lyndon Johnson failed to deliver during Vietnam. Had he done so instead of seeing light at “the end of the tunnel,” the outcome might have been different.

But the war on jihadist terror in Iraq is not Vietnam. We survived fatigue and failure in Vietnam. We will not survive failure in this war. Unless we want our children to live in constant fear of Islamic radicals bringing down buildings on their heads, there has to be a democratic outcome in Iraq. That’s why the president’s words this week were so important.

“With each step forward on the path to self-government and self-reliance,” Mr. Bush said at MacDill Air Force Base, “the terrorists will grow more desperate and more violent. They see Iraqis taking their country back. They see freedom taking root. The killers know they have no future in a free Iraq. They want America to abandon the mission and to break our word. So they’re attacking our soldiers and free Iraqis. They’re doing everything in their power to prevent the full transition to democracy.”

He continued: “We can expect more attacks in the coming few weeks… more car bombs, more suiciders, more attempts on the lives of Iraqi officials. But our coalition is standing firm. New Iraq’s leaders are not intimidated. I will not yield, and neither will the leaders of Iraq.”

Let’s hope that the American people have the patience not to yield either.

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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