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Tuesday, October 28, 2003

"The Slog":   Paying the priceless price on a time-payment plan

Flypaper theory or not, the odds that we will indeed kill or capture all the terrorists are essentially zero.  It is not now, nor has it ever been, realistic to expect that on the last day that the last American soldier leaves Iraq, Baghdad will resemble Des Moines, Iowa, in all significant respects.

If our security efforts in Iraq are smart and aggressive and keep constant pressure on the bad guys, there will be attrition, and there will be major successes, and the bad guys will pay a continual price.  They're willing to do that, of course, and in fact they define their success that way in large measure — thus leading to the best and most profound one-liner of the War on Terror, from the American Marine who said:   "It's the perfect war:   they want to die, and we want to kill them."  The security efforts we make are definitely worth making.  But if all we were doing in Iraq was providing security, and if our success were defined as making the place fully secure, then our mission would be absolutely hopeless.

Fortunately, however, that is not the goal.  We're not trying to remake Iraq into Iowa, or even into California.  We're just trying to make a free, democratic Iraq.  Nobody really knows what it will look like or what it will be.  It's a fair guess that it might look a little like India, a little like Israel, possibly a little wobbly like Argentina — and maybe even a little like Des Moines (but more likely a little like Los Angeles or Las Vegas).  It'll be up to them to decide.

We have paid, and will pay, many billions of dollars to help achieve that goal.  That's not chump change, although viewed in comparison to our national economy, or even in comparison to the effects that 9/11 have had on our national economy, it's not that huge either.  We'll spend that money over time; we couldn't just show up in February and open up our national wallet and say, "Okay, here, we're ready to buy now ... One 'free, independent Iraq to go, please, sir — and easy on the AK-47 sauce."

But that's the small price.  Of the large price, the priceless price, we frankly expected to pay more up front.  The right-up-front part of the priceless price turned out to be smaller than we figured, vastly less than we'd feared, because our dickerers were so very capable and creative and brave.  But despite the front-end loading, the priceless price for a free, independent Iraq — the price paid in the blood and lives of American soldiers, and in the blood and lives of the innocents from Iraq, America, and elsewhere who the bad guys pick as softer targets — is also necessarily a payment over time

There are no refunds of the priceless price.  The priceless price is never a loan and always a grant. 

It is altogether likely that during every year, every month, and every week that American troops are in Iraq, some few of them will leave horizontally, inside a flag-draped coffin inside the belly of an Air Force transport plane bound for Dover AFB.  "Success" will be if the last of them leave behind a free, independent Iraq; "failure" will be if the last of them leave behind something that collapses back into anarchy and fascist totalitarianism (either Islamic or secular).

And it's a a dicey deal at best.  There are no guarantees that what we are purchasing for the Iraqi people — purchasing over time with the blood of both American soldiers and the bad-guys' collateral targets — is something the Iraqi people will be able to keep.  In fact, there will likely be heated arguments (among Americans, among Iraqis, and between the two) regarding when Iraq "free and independent enough" to justify our leaving, and the act of our leaving will undoubtedly have both salutory and destabilizing effects.  Yet at some point we'll have to say, "Enough.  It's time to leave, we've done our best in giving you tools and a head start and some forward momentum into the Twenty-First Century."  We'll be gambling that we're right, but there's no way to avoid that altogether, and no way to minimize the risks other than by actually doing our best before we leave.

Even in the best-case scenario, there will still be some damned fool teenager with an RPG or an AK-47 or a car-trunk full of explosives — probably not even an Iraqi, but someone from a place still without much hope — who's been brainwashed to believe that he'll become immortal by killing an American soldier.  Or a Red Cross aid worker or even a Reuters reporter.  And there will be yet another "incident" in Baghdad of the sort we tend, thankfully (and a little ashamedly), to associate more with Tel Aviv than with Des Moines.  It will be tragic.  But if the Iraq we're leaving behind us is free and independent (even if not terror- or crime-free), it won't spoil or negate our victory; perversely, it will confirm it.

If you expect the body-count meter to ever stop turning over while we're still giving the vast majority of Iraqis (a/k/a "the good-guys") the tools they need to keep a free and independent Iraq when we're gone, then you're defining victory the wrong way, friend and neighbor.  We don't know yet how many more lives, and how many more lesser but still horrifying injuries (arms and legs blown off, for instance), we'll have to pay while we're there doing what has to be done to get to an Iraq that has a chance to stay free and independent. 

And neither the end result nor the price we'll end up paying en route there are at all inevitable.  But two things are clear:

  • Being stupid along the way means we get slower results and pay more in both mere dollars and in the priceless price. 

  • Quitting and running now means we forfeit all we've paid to date.

It's the recognition of those facts — of the fact that we have to keep asking ourselves continuously "Is this working? Can we do better?  Are we being bold and creative or are we just going through  the motions in a sort of 'UN aid to wartorn nations' way (viz the UN's Palestinian refugee camps dating back to 1946) — which prompted SecDef Rumsfeld to write his now-famous "long, hard slog" memo.  God bless him, he's aware that we are still negotiating the priceless price on a daily basis as part of the overall contours of the deal.  Asking and re-asking those questions will end up keeping more American blood inside of live Americans, instead of soaking into the Iraqi dirt, than otherwise.  But not all of it; never all of it. 

So there will be ample bad news on the way to victory.  Be reconciled to it.  Resist the temptation to hold your breath waiting for CNN to declare, "Iraq is at peace, all the terrorists have surrendered, and we have finally won!"  Because that's never going to happen — not even in the best-case scenario, not even when the last American soldier leaves free and independent Iraq.  Don't let some moron trying to eek out a slightly better Nielsen rating than his competitor at the next network over blind you to the appropriate measure of our success, or the timetable it will require. 

This — like the fight my father's generation (what Brokaw calls "the Greatest Generation") fought in the 1940s — is a worthy fight for the descendents of the founders of our country.  What we are fighting to create in Iraq may be every bit as world-changing and influential outside its own literal borders as what the makers of the American revolution made in the 1770s.

Slog on, America.  Slog on.

Posted by Beldar at 09:42 PM in Current Affairs, Global War on Terror | Permalink


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