Monday, May 3, 2004

Astheaircraft landed on the carrier last year, I was personally amused by the idea that a U.S. president would perform such a feat. Regardless of the ensuing brouhaha, an American president in fighter gear is not unusual with the political culture on this side of the Atlantic. President Bush landing on a carrier, Bill Clinton playing saxophone, Ronald Reagan in Westerns, or John Kerry earning and then throwing his medals on Congress’ stairs, is all peculiarly American.

Hence, not only “a president lands on a moving ship,” but the entire political establishment has been landing on a traveling culture, which, in the logic of Samuel Huntington, shows how America is still searching for its own identity. But more important than the show remains the speech content.

First his assessment of the war: Have major operations in Iraq ended or not? And second, is the situation in Iraq better this year than last year?

President Bush stated in April 2003, “Major operations have ended.” Here we are in May 2004, and the answer is as clear as any adult observer of Iraq can see. Yes, major military operations involving entire divisionsacross Mesopotamia against a regular army are over. The Saddam army is no more, hence major operations to defeat that force ceased a year ago.

I find it very strange that critics of the president argue against these clear facts, instead of addressing the global objective and the management of the operation.

For asserting that “major military operations” had ended because terror cells and militias are waging a counter-liberation insurgency is far from accurate.

At the present time, there is no national military organization in Iraq that can defeat the U.S.-led coalition and bring back the Ba’ath regime or establish a Taliban rule. If such an “army” is engaged massively against U.S. forces, then yes, the major operations would still be on a year after. Terrorism can provoke political chaos, but assassinations and bombings, as well as the Fallujah and Sadr developments, do not constitute an army.

Militaryspokesmen should be more informative in explaining the difference between “major military” and counter-terrorism operations. They sound the same, but they are different.

Unfortunately, the air-carrier speech, although accurate in describing the facts that day, failed to warn of what was yet to be expected: jihadists’ and Fedayin’s terror war. The president’s statement wasn’t wrong but it was incomplete: Yes, massive operations ended, but jihad attacks should have been forecast.

But on the other hand, the critics’ assessments are politically motivated, rather than analytical. For, while the president’s speech was geo-politically valid, the critics failed to distinguish between one chapter and another: classical war and terrorism.

The second question is important, in essence. Is Iraq better off one year after liberation or one year before? Well, that is in the eyes of the beholders. The Ba’athists prefer the 30 years preceding March 2003. The Islamists, ironically, prefer the Iraq following April 2004 to establish their credentials. They are now on Al Jazeera television, claiming their fight against infidels.

This year is better, only as a passage to an al Qaeda state.Intheirlogic, Ba’athists are better than infidels and an anti-Wahabi government. Complex, yes, but true.

Most Arab regimes disliked Saddam but fear democracy. French and German elites were embarrassed by him, but feared him, too. So they faired better in 2002. In the United States, the Iraq liberation is unfortunately digested by the election year. Its supporters see the United States better off without Saddam, while its opponents see any action by the Bush administration as reprehensible.

The last word is to the Iraqis. Are they better off today than in February 2003? In the north, no Kurd, Assyrian or Turkoman would see Iraq under Saddam as better. In the south, many resent the United States and the West, but no Shi’ite wants to return to the 2002 mass graves either. In the Sunni Triangle, the Saddamists and the jihadists are not difficult to guess. So by Iraqi majority standards, isn’t May 2004 much better than February 2003?

Yes, April 2004 is better than February 2003, but could have been better. Mass violence in all of Iraq is worse than terror violence in specific spots. The future depends on how fast democracy wins. In a sense, we are all landing on a moving Iraqi carrier.

Walid Phares is a professor of Middle East studies and an Iraq/terrorism analyst for MSNBC.

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