Getting Kicks Out of Iraq

Election '04

Considering that he's the sort of man who's not above pretending to like Cheez Whiz in order to gain a fleeting political advantage, it should come as no surprise to learn that George W. Bush thinks of the Olympics less as a celebration of athleticism than as yet another opportunity for electioneering. Thus, while the unofficial Bush campaign was busy spreading lies and baseless innuendo about John Kerry's war record, the official campaign launched a new ad lauding the president's supposed success in spreading the blessings of freedom around the world.

It was a good choice. Americans like the Olympics, and because our men's soccer team failed to qualify, the field was open for the United States to root for some other nation. And, so far, the Iraqis are doing well. So well, in fact, that Matt Drudge (a key player in the aforementioned unofficial campaign and hence someone potentially in a position to know) has reported that the White House is contemplating a surprise trip to Athens, Greece, so the president can watch the team and further associate his failed administration with the players' success. What's more, Iraq's Olympians suffered uniquely at the hands of Saddam Hussein's son Uday, making them an excellent example of the undeniable fact that some good has come of the Iraq War. The charge that Bush's critics harbor a secret nostalgia for Baath Party rule can be rebutted, but, like many things, the argument is not amenable to explication in a 30-second television spot, so it looked like the campaign was headed toward making some modest gains off the issue.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the medal stand: Someone asked Iraq's players how they feel.

"Iraq as a team does not want Mr. Bush to use us for the presidential campaign," Salih Sadir told Sports Illustrated. Ahmed Manajid elaborated: "How will [Bush] meet his god having slaughtered so many men and women? He has committed so many crimes." Coach Ahmed Hamad was more diplomatic. "My problems are not with the American people," he said. "They are with what America has done in Iraq: Destroy everything. The American army has killed so many people in Iraq. What is freedom when I go to the [national] stadium and there are shootings on the road?" Manajid went on to explain that if he weren't so busy with the team, he would join the Sunni resistance.

This is the sound of a counterinsurgency gone horribly wrong. The time-honored method of guerilla warfare, whether undertaken for causes admirable, despicable, or somewhere in between, is to attack a stronger adversary not in order to defeat him but in order to provoke reprisals. The guerillas then melt into the surrounding population, ensuring that counterattacks will inflict pain not only on their forces but on the people at large, thus alienating them from the established authorities. Sympathizers become co-belligerents and fence-sitters become sympathizers. The guerillas suffer losses, but also a recruiting boom, while the increasingly despised counterinsurgents lose credibility and the ability to govern effectively.

Why is Manajid so upset? Well, it's simple enough: He's from Fallujah, where U.S. forces have launched many attacks, one of which killed his cousin Omar. It's an understandable sentiment: To be sure, Omar was killed because he joined the insurgency; nevertheless, if someone killed my cousin, I'd be pretty upset about it. And the late Omar Jabbar al-Aziz doubtless had more family members than the one anti-American midfielder. Other cousins, perhaps, along with some siblings and in-laws. Children, maybe, or parents who are still alive. Nephews, uncles, and nieces. Certainly he had friends. And none of those people is going to be very happy that he was killed. Nor will those who were merely injured by U.S. attacks feel very warm and fuzzy about the red, white, and blue. Nor will their friends and family. Nor those who've had their homes destroyed, or merely damaged. More than a year of sporadic fighting, bombing, and shelling has a way of making a lot of people mad. And when a lot of people get mad at you, some of them decide to get even.

Now war means fighting, and fighting means killing, so one can hardly blame the U.S. military for having created a fair amount of wreckage in the course of its activities. This is what happens in a war, and, in fact, Americans are more fastidious about it than most (see, for example, what the Russians did to Grozny). But the fact that things could be worse is little consolation to someone who has seen his brother killed, his best friend lose a leg, his cousin's house destroyed, the last resting place of his dead relatives bombed, or the holy places where he worships damaged. If you want to fight a war, there's no alternative but to do a certain amount of these things; but if you want to win it, you need to do them without making everybody hate you. That means overwhelming political credibility – a widespread belief on the part of the population that your forces are acting with their best interests at heart.

Among Iraq's Arab majority, who had known nothing from their Anglo American occupiers but a history of imperial conquest, war, betrayal, and sanctions, we did not have that kind of credibility when we went in. And instead of taking advantage of the goodwill generated by Hussein's removal to get some, the Bush administration squandered the opportunity with a series of errors brilliantly described by former CPA adviser Larry Diamond in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.

You can't win a war without killing people, and our forces are remarkably good at doing so. What's more, despite it all, U.S. casualties thus far have been remarkably low by historical standards. Still, killing people does no good if the only result is to increase the number of people fighting against you, and that's exactly what's happening right now. As the most recent edition of the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index revealed, despite killing or detaining thousands of insurgents between April and July, the number of fighters arrayed against us has quadrupled rather than gone down. We can sustain this pace of "progress" – stay the course, as the president likes to say – for quite awhile, but doing so will accomplish nothing. It's too bad that Kerry doesn't have a simple five-point plan that will resolve the situation easily, but if there were an obvious way to get from where we are now to where we want to be, he wouldn't have been opposed to many of the missteps that have landed us in the current mess.

The question the American people need to be debating is who stands the best chance of resolving a situation that's destined to be extremely problematic for whichever candidate finds himself in the White House next January. Is it the team that's bungling put us here, or is it the other guys? The ones who lost almost $9 billion in reconstruction funds, or their opponents? That's a debate the president would rather not have. Hence the smears, the fairy tales about accountants scheming to raise your taxes, and the happy talk about the Iraqi Olympic team. It's a dirty trick, but it just might work. What it won't do is solve the problems that got the president into his electoral jam – and our soldiers fighting a war they can't win – in the first place.

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