On any given morning, 99.9% of Iraq’s 25 million people may wake up eager to rebuild their country and secure the blessings of liberty for themselves, their families and their neighbors.
But if, on that same morning, the remaining 0.01% of Iraqis, 25,000 people, wake up intent on spreading death and destruction – through sabotage, hostage-taking, video-taped decapitations, suicide-bombings and drive-by shootings-- guess what will dominate that day’s news?
This is less a gripe about the media than it is a testament to the efficacy of the strategy being implemented by our enemies. They are utilizing terrorism not just as warfare but also as public relations and advertising.
When Osama bin Laden’s lieutenants wanted to influence the Spanish elections last March, they didn’t film commercials or write op-eds. Mass murder, they understood, is cheaper and more persuasive.
In June, the U.S. transferred sovereignty to Iraqi leaders a few days ahead of schedule in order to prevent acts of terrorism timed to coincide with the ceremonies. Such carnage would not have stopped the transition. But it would have ensured that the evening news reported: “Today’s events were marred by violence.” In the eyes of those we’re fighting, what are a few lives cut short in exchange for a great PR hit?
The terrorists have learned that the major media are generally too “neutral” to disapprove of them. Even when they slaughter women and children, most journalists will refer to them, respectfully, as “insurgents,” “militants,” sometimes even “activists.” After an attack, no matter how vicious, commentators will note that “the security situation continues to deteriorate,” a development for which Americans must bear responsibility.
They will report, too, that average Iraqis are frustrated – “tearing their hair out,” was how I heard it phrased on National Public Radio – because Americans have not done whatever is required to make them safe.
The problem, of course, is that Americans don’t know what is required. Iraqis may genuinely find it difficult to believe that a superpower hasn’t managed to figure that out. But we haven’t.
Everyone has heard the truism that generals fight the last war. In recent decades, under Republican and Democratic administrations alike, Pentagon planners created a military machine designed to deter any Great Power that might arise -- a fighting force that could not be challenged on the high seas, in the skies or on the plains of Europe.
They didn’t foresee how unlikely it was that such a war would be fought again – certainly not over the next half century or so. By contrast, it is almost inevitable that we will spend many difficult years engaged in “small wars,” hunting down unlawful combatants wherever they hide, train and plot. Preparing for this kind of war was not a Pentagon priority in the past.
Now, America’s military leaders – and the troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan – must struggle to learn how to defeat a clever, ruthless and elusive enemy. They must learn the hard way: by doing, by experimenting, by making mistakes, by suffering casualties.
If they fail it will mean not merely that Iraq will be lost and that Iraqis will return to life under the jackboot of some despot. It also will mean that Osama bin Laden and other Jihadis will have developed a weapon that can defeat the Great Satan, a model they can -- and will -- adapt to other parts of the world.
As for the expensive and sophisticated military machine that the United States has assembled, that would be a white elephant. Why have the capability to conquer Baghdad within weeks if, a short while later, Baghdad has to be given back to the enemy, or to others equally hostile?
Certainly, no nation with a military so unsuited to its mission could be called a superpower.
But America’s fighting men and women are not likely to accept such an outcome. The military may be the only bureaucracy that transforms itself – because the price of inertia really is death.
And most Americans will support them in every possible way. The United States stood up to Nazism, Fascism and Communism in the 20th century. Despite pressure from the isolationist Right, the blame-America-first Left and Europe’s neo-Neville Chamberlins, most Americans are not going to want to back down to the totalitarians of the 21st century – even though the struggle against them has turned out to be more painful than anticipated.
It also would be premature to give up on Iraqis, most of whom continue to express a commitment to freedom and democracy, as well as confidence in the future (see for example the recent survey by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies).
“In war,” Churchill said, “one cannot wait to have everything perfect, but must fight in relation to the enemy’s strength and plight.”
In Iraq today, the enemy’s strength derives from the fact that he finds targets everywhere – American soldiers, Iraqi police cadets, Nepalese construction workers, Turkish truck drivers, what’s the difference? And he has virtually nothing to defend.
He has learned to deftly manipulate the international media. Through the media he influences Western public opinion, so when demonstrators hit the streets of Paris or New York you can bet they’re not protesting acts of random butchery but rather the responses to that butchery.
The enemy’s plight, however, is that he is fighting Americans who understand that costly as this war is proving to be, the price of defeat would be much steeper.
Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.