On Dec. 20, 1950, with the Chinese army chasing United Nations (U.S.) forces southward, everyone thought we were losing the Korean War. That’s what Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters in Japan thought; that’s what the Pentagon thought; that’s what the headquarters in Korea thought. Then the commanding general in Korea, Walton Walker, was killed in a jeep accident and Gen. Matthew Ridgeway was sent on Christmas Day to take command.
Ten weeks later, the course of the war was reversed, the Chinese army was retreating, and in the next four months that army and two replacement armies were destroyed. When the communists called for cease-fire talks they had no force left that could have prevented the United States from marching up to the narrow neck of North Korea and controlling the great bulk of the country more easily than it protected the cease-fire lines at the old border.
Ridgeway did not use a bold new strategy, nor did he have any unexpected new forces or equipment. Essentially, he turned the war around by demanding that his officers pull up their socks and do what they had been taught and what was prescribed in basic military manuals. Such things as preparing defensive lines before going to sleep, adjacent units
What is the significance of this example? It tells us that if we seem to be losing we do not have to assume it is because we are in the wrong war; we may be going about it the wrong way. In Korea, all it took to fix the problem was installing a competent commander — which we did because of an accident. In Iraq, the problem is more difficult, we have to change our diplomatic strategy, which is mostly chosen and carried out by Foreign Service and intelligence officers — not the president.
We are losing ground in Iraq because we decided to support the Sunni minority and Arab Nationalist and Ba’athist leaders rather than the Shi’ite majority, which wants to try to create a consensual government of laws, allied to the United States.
This bad choice was made for three reasons. First it is thought to be the best way to preserve the stability of the Arab regimes in the area, especially Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, all of them Sunni dictatorships. Second, it avoids some trouble with the United Nations. Third, our diplomatic and intelligence experts believe it is naive to think the Iraqis can achieve a consensual government of laws (and if they did it would destabilize the region). And also because of excessive suspicion of the Iraqi Shi’ites.
The U.S. military is not being fully used to eliminate terrorist sanctuaries and restore order because most of the terror comes from two groups of Sunnis: Wahhabi religious extremists indoctrinated and financed by Saudis, and the remnants of Saddam loyalists — with some help from al Qaeda and other outside terrorists. And our diplomatic experts believe restoring Sunni power in Iraq, which can only be done by force, outside help and terror, is the key to achieving the U.S. objective they accept — preserving regional stability. While this is a gross oversimplification it is the essence of the situation.
What is the answer? Stop trying to protect the Arab dictatorships and catering to the United Nations. Use the military to restore order in the Sunni triangle despite complaints from our Arab “allies” and the U.N. — and a relatively brief period of high casualties. Stop favoring Sunnis and Ba’athists. Move quickly to free and fair elections based on district candidates, which is needed to satisfy the Shi’ite majority and which serves the United States’ real interests.
The result would be that the growing Sh’iite cooperation with Iranian agents and political representatives would come to a screeching halt — because the Shi’ites would no longer need Iranian help — of which they are afraid — to protect themselves from the Sunnis. This might create a different danger, from Iranian-controlled terrorists trying to create chaos when they see Iraqis moving to an independent government without their help. But there are ways to deal with that, too.
In other words, if we want a relatively peaceful establishment of an independent free government in Iraq, we need to stop supporting a minority, many of whom have anti-American undemocratic politics, and start allowing the majority, which wants a government of laws and is more pro-American, to control their own country. It is not rocket science to think we might do better supporting the 60 percent of the country favoring democracy rather than the 20 percent who want to ally with Arab dictators. Maybe that too would pose troubles, but it seems worth trying before we give up.
Changing strategy in Iraq by restoring the priority of the president’s original objectives can change the course of the war in Iraq as quickly as changing generals did in Korea — although, as in Korea, the follow-up of victory will take some time.