TCS Daily

Ignore the Critics

By Dale Franks - April 9, 2004 12:00 AM

The last time America fought a complicated war of global reach on multiple fronts was during World War II. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was faced with a very different political opposition than the current president. Opinion was divided between "doves" who merely wanted to raze our enemies' countries to the ground, and "hawks" who wanted to raze them to the ground and make the rubble bounce. In that kind of environment, had Roosevelt openly announced a plan to carpet-bomb enemy cities, the response of his opponents would have most likely been, "Are you sure you have enough planes to do that?"

The conclusion of that war saw the peaceful, constructive occupation of two beaten peoples. To be blunt, the reason this was so was because the allied powers waged war until most potential postwar troublemakers had been killed. Those that weren't already dead were immediately rounded up, and provided with fair trials before their hangings. Both occupations were, in the fullness of time, judged completely successful.

Roosevelt and his successor, Harry Truman, did have one advantage that George W. Bush does not have: a nation united across party lines to prosecute the war with vigor. In today's radically different domestic and international political environment, the president's every action is watched carefully -- and criticized -- by his opponents.

Criticism can, of course, have useful results. It is helpful if it prompts honest reappraisal of the country's goals and methods, and increases the effectiveness of its policy. Unfortunately, criticism -- especially the constant, and, at times, extreme criticism the Bush Administration has faced -- can also prompt timidity, and an unwillingness to take necessary risks. It is the latter effect that appears to have led us into the current situation in Iraq.

The administration has faced unceasing criticism because of its ties to various business interests. The term "Halliburton" has become shorthand for an all-too-cozy arrangement between the administration and big business. The response of the administration, stung by such criticisms, has been to become bogged down in trying to ensure that rebuilding contracts in Iraq are above reproach. Despite the billions of dollars Congress has authorized for reconstruction assistance in Iraq, hardly a penny of it has been spent. We are one year into the occupation of Iraq, and somewhat less than 3 months until the handover of sovereignty to the Iraqis, and major reconstruction funding hasn't reached the country at all.

A similar timidity seems to have characterized the administration's conduct of military operations during the occupation. In order to forestall criticism from both domestic opponents and the international community, the administration has failed to take several necessary steps that would have conceivably prevented the current unrest in Iraq. Pursuing a more hard-line and rigorous approach to the occupation would have opened the administration to general condemnation for insufficient attention to the rights of the Iraqis. Failure to do so, however, has led to a dangerous lack of security and stability in some parts of the country.

Unlike the Germans or Japanese in WWII, the Iraqi army did not stand and fight. For the most part, Iraqi units simply disbanded themselves, and their members returned home. At no time after the conclusion of the war was any serious effort made to cordon off the Sunni Triangle, root out former regime soldiers, or to conduct large-scale, house-to-house searches for weapons or contraband.

In contrast, our first priority in the occupation of Germany was to round up everyone who had served in the Wehrmacht and place them in POW camps. Intense searches were made to root our former regime hardliners like SS and Gestapo members. Our failure to take similar measures in Iraq has allowed the Sunni Triangle to fester as a constant security problem, and has given Ba'ath party loyalists an impression of indecision and weakness. This has, to put it mildly, not been helpful.

Additionally, the administration's lack of vigor in silencing the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has borne bitter fruit. An Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant for Sadr a year ago, in connection with the brutal murder of a fellow Shiite cleric, the moderate Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei. Rather than enforcing the Iraqi warrant and arresting Sadr, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has left him free to organize his own private army, set up his own Sharia court system, and publicly encourage revolt against the occupation.

Perhaps the fear of creating a martyr prevented the CPA from taking immediate action to detain Sadr. It's difficult to see, however, how it could have been more dangerous to hold Sadr in prison and incommunicado, than it has been to leave him free to construct his own private army and plot an attempt at a coup d'etat (with, one suspects, liberal funding from Iran). Martyr arguments are questionable in general, since they presuppose a rather counterintuitive idea, which is that a dead enemy is more dangerous than a live one. In the case of Sadr, in particular, such thinking appears to have been a huge miscalculation on the CPA's part.

For the past several days, we have been reaping the fruit of our indecision and timidity in Iraq. If we expect to have any hope of turning over sovereignty to the Iraqis in such a way as to ensure a reasonably peaceful, stable country there, some immediate steps must be taken.

The reconstruction money earmarked for Iraq must be awarded to contractors quickly, and major work begun in Iraq at the earliest possible opportunity. First, this will give Iraqis a measure of hope for substantial improvements in their daily life. Second, since idle hands are the devil's workshop, being employed at some constructive tasks will keep at least some Iraqis from seeking employment in more dangerous pursuits.

Large-scale military operations in the Sunni Triangle must continue, in order to root out former regime loyalists, and cashes of weapons and contraband. The Ba'ath holdovers must be given a clear, unmistakable message that they have been decisively beaten, and that any hope of a future return to power is an unobtainable fantasy. This will require an immediate, massive, violent response to anyone who offers armed resistance anywhere, at any time. Additionally, it will require the detention of former regime loyalists for whatever period may be necessary to ensure a smooth transition to power of the new Iraqi government. Iraq is not an American courtroom, and the normal rules of evidence and habeas corpus do not apply. Once the stability of Iraq is relatively certain, a more leisurely, case-by-case examination of former regime loyalists can ensue.

Finally, Muqtada al-Sadr should be immediately detained, using whatever level of force may be required to affect his apprehension, including deadly force. Members of his militia should be similarly rounded up or killed as necessary.

As hard as it may be to believe, we already have the goodwill of the majority of Iraqis. But our unwillingness to eliminate security threats in Iraq or to provide meaningful reconstruction threatens to squander that goodwill. By taking the appropriate actions, however, we can capitalize on it, and create a much more stable future for the people of Iraq.

Dale Franks recently wrote for TCS about the International Criminal Court.


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