It’s been a bad week in Iraq: Monday brought the news of a rocket attack on Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz’s hotel; Tuesday, 35 killed, 230 more injured in simultaneous attacks on the Red Cross and police stations around Baghdad; Wednesday, Baghdad’s Deputy Mayor assassinated; Thursday, more American soldiers dead, making the total number of deaths since the end of “major combat operations” higher than the number killed during the actual war. Who knows what headlines Friday will bring? With no end in sight to the daily violence in Iraq and the patience of the American people wearing thin, withdrawing troops becomes a tempting option. But as appalling as the near-daily deaths of American soldiers may be and as absurd as the 87 billion dollars requested to rebuild the country may sound, I fear that if U.S. forces pack it up and abandon Iraq, the peaceniks will prove to have been right all along: the Iraqi people were better off with Saddam than without him.
Critics have haphazardly thrown around the word “quagmire,” comparing Iraq to Vietnam. Such talk has become a standard weapon in the arsenal of shallow anti-war polemic. While the military’s role has transformed from rapid “shock and awe” to policing and defense against guerilla warfare, the situation in Iraq is far from another Vietnam.
The United States fought the Vietnam War in support of a corrupt government that was loathed by the local population; an overwhelming majority of Iraqis advocated the overthrow of Saddam and the founding of a new democratic government. In Vietnam, American forces faced guerilla resistance in nearly every village; suicide attacks in Iraq have been largely confined to a small area between Baghdad, Tikrit and al-Fallujah. At the peak of fighting in 1968, 3,000 Americans were killed each month; as of today, 117 have died since major combat operations ended in May. Not only are the comparisons simply invalid, but moreover, they threaten to undermine the establishment of a stable, self-sufficient democracy in Iraq and to return Iraq into the hands of tyranny.
The irony of the situation, as Thomas Friedman points out (New York Times, 10/30), is that unlike many liberal critics, the Baathists and Jihadists who are now resisting American occupation know that U.S. motivations aren’t imperialist, but rather, fueled by a commitment to rebuilding Iraq and establishing a self-governing state — one in which their autocratic and fundamentalist ideals have no part. The bad news is that as long as these Saddam loyalists and Islamic fundamentalists aren’t in power, the attacks will continue, even long after the United States has relinquished control to an Iraqi government. And the good news?
We are now standing at a crucial point in history where the United States can endure occupation and ultimately pave the way for a secure and prosperous Middle East by first encouraging democracy in the region, and secondly, directing efforts to eradicate fundamentalist terrorism at its roots. Instead of employing empty rhetoric, the United States can show through action that democracy is not only possible in the Middle East, but far more beneficial than theocracy or autocracy. A paradigm of freedom, prosperity and opportunity in the form of an Iraqi nation will go a long way towards strengthening genuine democratic movements in countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria. It is not through attacking terrorist cells and confiscating their funds that the United States can truly combat terrorism.
Investing in the prosperity of the Iraqi people by creating a thriving economy and available jobs is the first step in deterring these economically marginalized youths to join the ranks of Jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Hamas. Frustration with economic hardship and lack of opportunity, supposedly imposed by Western economic hegemony and imperialism, finds its outlet through acts of terrorism, where the painful anonymity of life is abolished and the “enemy” directly engaged. Iraq’s oil resources and well-educated population hold great promise for a country whose true potential was squandered by a regime that ruled by fear, repressed 80 percent of its population (the Shi’ites and Kurds), and lived in ostentatious luxury.
With the help of 87 billion dollars, a people committed to the prosperity their country, and American resolve to stay the course, the United States is more than capable of rebuilding Iraq. It’s not a task that can be done in a year, let alone in the coming months; we’re in it for the long haul. Neither the necessary money nor the perseverance of the Iraqi people seems to be in question — rather it is our patience that the future of Iraq hinges upon.
Keith Urbahn is a sophomore in Saybrook College.