There are legitimate concerns over where things stand in Iraq. Those who are genuinely worried about the welfare of the Iraqi people as well as about America's long-term interests should be commended for fretting over what is a fatefully decisive issue. However, these anxieties are being preyed upon and manipulated by dark and cynical forces whose affirmed goal, from the very beginning, was to declare the democratic experiment in Iraq a "failure." Within Iraq, the jihadists and Baathists are among these forces, joined by the intelligence services and news bureaus of regional state actors such as Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Inside Washington, these forces include some who are in the pay of the Saudis, and bureaucrats safeguarding their careers. Coming in third are those who would rather win local congressional elections than a very serious battle in Baghdad.
The "Iraq is a failure" crowd is not only craven but also mistaken. If pressed to the wall to give a verdict on Iraq, I'd say that Iraq is succeeding. A strategic corner in the counterinsurgency campaign has already been turned, but the tangible results will take longer to register in the public mind. Should America retract now and walk away from the victory at hand, many more Iraqi and American lives will be harmed and disrupted down the road.
Iraq is succeeding because the Iraqi state has weathered the worst of the insurgent storm and survived, and because the Sunni insurgency is fatigued. "What about all the bodies? What about all the bombings?" Indeed, it's the worst it has been, but not the worst it can be. I see many hopeful signs that cannot be dismissed. To me, the numbers of the dead — painful as they are — are not as critically dangerous as a much talked about shift in American strategy away from the goal of securing a democratic Iraq.
Insurgencies are about perceptions, not about hard facts on the ground. Usually, insurgents try to present their goals as noble, hoping to win over the population. Historically, insurgencies had only two options: overturning weakening regimes or being methodically stamped out. Modern times afford modern insurgencies another option: They have an unprecedented chance to mold global perceptions. The insurgents in Iraq have given up on winning over the Iraqi people. No righteous cause can justify the senseless murder of elderly women out to buy some groceries, not even to the most gullible or cynical of audiences. Rather, the insurgents have other goals in Iraq: They seek to create an atmosphere of terror where even the most mundane acts of life are paralyzed. They don't fight for victory. They fight to make the other side "feel" defeated. Public sentiment in Iraq is superfluous to the insurgents, whereas American opinion polls matter plenty. Should they succeed in making Washington waiver, then it would be a massive breakthrough in the business of terror.
Imagine how the battle of Stalingrad would have been covered by today's press and broadcast enterprises. The Russians ended up executing 14,000 of their own for desertion. About 50,000 Soviet citizens fought alongside the Nazis. Civilians continued to live in this most ferocious of war zones. A lot of negative spin could have been generated to weaken Russian resolve, at a time when the Stalinist regime deserved to be bad-mouthed. But even evil is relative, and it was clear who should have won and did indeed win.
The new Iraq is not Soviet Russia. In theory, the new Iraq is the grand hope of resurrection for a country and a region that has long been mired in brutality. It is a cause worthy of being fought for, or so it should be patently clear. Saddam Hussein has been brought to trial over two crimes so far, the relatively minor incident of Dujail and the genocidal campaign against the Kurds. Both highlight how the Baathist regime found its subjects guilty by familial association. Harm against a loved one was a technique that was thoroughly and easily employed to terrorize any would-be dissenter. These days, the family members of the court officials prosecuting Saddam are being systematically killed. Those doing the killing are the same ones who used to take orders from Saddam, but now don the insurgent mask rather than the epaulets of the Republican Guards. The nature of evil in this case should be clear.
I was pro-liberation and anti-occupation, but at least I could see that the American occupation of Iraq was the "nicest" such occupation in the history of mankind. The campaign was well intentioned, and the mistakes made resulted from ignorance rather than from malice. Aberrations such Abu Ghraib were quickly punished and apologized for, while the populations of Southeast Asia are still waiting for the Japanese to come clean. But more odd and unfair accusations are being constantly leveled against America's presence in Iraq with every turn, the latest holding it responsible for fueling sectarian strife. Sunnis and Shiites have been killing each other long before Columbus ever set sail. Al Qaeda in Iraq has been incessantly trying to ignite a civil war as part of its strategy to jumpstart an Islamic caliphate. Should America be blamed for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's dark vision and the lengths he was willing to go for it?
Those who wish the new Iraq to fail are very sophisticated: They understand and keep track of American politics. The different strands of the insurgency —jihadist, Baathist, and Sunni — may not be operationally cohesive, but they do synchronize their actions. They have a "brain trust" that maps out the next move. They worked hard to bring the insurgency right up to the gates of the Green Zone, but failed to storm it. The insurgents are negotiating: They are knocking at the gates, hoping to be let in before it is too late. Hence, the spike in violence and the last big push before bringing the cowed Americans to the negotiating table at their most politically vulnerable. The insurgency is confronting its limits. It is finding that replenishing expertise, personnel, and the treasury is getting harder and harder. They are also finding that the Iraqi state and the Americans are getting better at fighting them through enhanced intelligence and an increased sense of confidence. Not surprisingly, the most recent insurgent offensive aimed to hold down territory, but was beaten back all over Iraq, most notably in Mosul.
The insurgents are also fragmenting, as mainstream Baathists and sectarian Sunnis find that the agendas harbored by their fringes, such as bringing back the Saddam regime or declaring an Islamic state, are unrealistic bargaining positions. These are bad times for the insurgency. But they are benefiting for the time being from the chaotic conditions created by the followers of Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr who continue to undermine law and order in Iraq. Mr. al-Sadr's authority over his radical followers is weakening. They are breaking up into a shadowy Iranian-backed outfit called the Mumahidoon (literally, "those preparing for the return of the Mahdi," the hidden imam or messiah) that is responsible for most of the reprisal sectarian killings, and others moonlighting in organized crime. Once these Shiite militias are confronted and broken up, the larger insurgency will find it harder and harder to breathe.
And although one hears jingoistic and exaggerated statements made on editorial pages about the breakdown of the Iraqi government, the Iraqi state continues to function and improve its performance. Salaries are being paid, oil is being sold, and the incredibly complex monthly food-ration system is still up and running. The anti-corruption arm of the government is doing marvelous work in prosecuting the guilty, which is a first for the Middle East. Given that the insurgents kill municipal trash collectors for simply doing their jobs, it is no small feat that any garbage is being picked up at all. The insurgents continue to threaten teachers and professors, yet schools are open. It is these simple acts of courage — to keep going amidst all the threats of terror — which were on display during the elections, but they keep happening daily even when the cameras stop rolling.
There is plenty of heartache coming from Iraq. But there is also plenty to be proud of. It is a very simple choice: Do the bad guys — the Baathists, Al Qaeda, and the tyrants — win this round of the long war ahead, or will the regular Iraqis who are just trying to live a decent life emerge victorious. And you can bet your life that the outcome matters to those seeking to live similarly decent and terror-free lives in Manhattan, St. Louis, or anywhere else in America.
This article originally appeared in the October 25, 2006, edition of the New York Sun.