Thursday, April 14, 2005

The most important lesson of the Iraq war

…too many among America's elite lost their nerve when the going got tough
writes the Wall Street Journal (emphasis mine).
This may well be the most important lesson coming out of the Iraq war. The outcome of major combat operations was never seriously in doubt, although plenty of supposedly serious people predicted the siege of Baghdad would be America's Stalingrad. What was in doubt, however, was whether the U.S. could prevail if the war became an extended test of wills against a determined foe using guerrilla and terrorist tactics. This was a test not of the skill or bravery of the American soldier, but of the home front's willingness to see the war through; a test in which the key to victory wasn't competence but perseverance.

President Bush passed that test. He did so by dint of the very characteristics his critics found so objectionable: his certitude that going to war was the right thing to do; his conviction that Iraqis want to be free. To prevail, Mr. Bush had to wager his Presidency on a course of action that, by the summer of 2004, the chattering classes believed was doomed.

The American people also passed the test. We don't buy the myth that Mr. Bush bamboozled the public into believing there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and the attacks of September 11. Still, most Americans understood that, in their respective but parallel efforts, Saddam and Osama bin Laden were both testing America's credibility, which had been diminished during the Clinton years.

Americans also understood that credibility had to be restored if the war on terror was to be won, above all by not devising "exit strategies" in the face of a jihadist onslaught. As for tactics, whatever the public's qualms about Mr. Bush's handling of the war, they were persuaded that he was committed to seeing it through, a commitment Senator John Kerry did not convincingly share.

That leaves America's elite — the politicians, wise men, think-tank experts, academics, magazine and editorial-page editors, big-city columnists, TV commentators. Many opposed the war from the start, and whether they have now reassessed their views in light of recent events is a matter of some interest. But because they never signed on to the war in the first place, the question of their fortitude throughout its ups and downs is less an issue.

The people who really concern us here — the people who did not pass the test — are those who signed up for the war at the beginning only to find one excuse or another to sign out before it was won. Usually, those excuses centered on some Bush bungle, real or alleged, that no "competent" Administration would have made but that was said to have rendered the whole enterprise morally sullied and irremediable. The looting of Baghdad falls into this category, as does the political wallowing in the abuses of Abu Ghraib.

In this respect, [Clinton Administration diplomat Peter] Galbraith and his ilk are heirs to that generation of '60s leaders who took the U.S. into Vietnam only to turn against the war in fits of self-doubt, self-flagellation, excessive fine-tuning and political cravenness, after thousands of servicemen had lost their lives. Sad to say, this time around the doubters included all too many conservatives who supported the war at first but then distanced themselves from it as the insurgency grew. They had their own reputational "exit strategies."

We have had our criticisms of the way the Administration handled the prewar diplomatic and postwar reconstruction and counterinsurgency effort. But no chapter of America's military history has been free of strategic mistakes and tactical disasters, and our lodestar throughout has been the goal of eventual victory. As we wrote at the onset of war, in March 2003, "Toppling Saddam is a long-term undertaking" and "The largest risk is an imponderable: Whether Americans can generate the political consensus to sustain involvement in Iraq."

Two years later we know the answer to that question is yes, thanks to the fortitude and wisdom of a President, our soldiers and the American public. Maybe next time, our best and brightest will show the same character.

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