Wednesday, March 29, 2006


History will judge the American expedition to Iraq as either a failure or a success, depending on outcomes that still can't be foreseen, and which nobody predicted at the opening. That has been true all along. Where we are now is not the end.

What is true now is that the hopes and predictions of the more idealistic supporters of the war have mostly turned to ash -- with the important and always overlooked exception of the Kurdish north, which is thriving and working its way toward a bright future. As for the Cassandras, well, I still say a general proclamation of "it's going to suck" doesn't count as a prediction, and that specific predictions of failure or calamity that were made included important elements (massive refugee problems, chemical weapons, house-to-house fighting to take Baghdad) that fell flat.

History will judge, but as the historian Paul Johnson would note at this point, "there is no such person as history." Right. It is we who will shape the first version of that history, and it will be passed down the line, reinterpreted by each generation.

For now, looking only at the short-term outcome of the invasion, the Cassandras have the upper hand. But the war between the Cassandras and the Agamemnons hardly is finished. The battle now shifts to a new ground: Was the whole thing doomed from the start, no matter who led it or how it was done, or was it a good idea botched in execution?

Counting the number of things that might have been done better can consume hours. Some of the ones usually cited, however, don't seem to me to be open-and-shut cases. Simply saying, "we did X and the whole thing has gone contrary to our plans, so doing X obviously was wrong" is a fallacy. Was disbanding Saddam's army wrong? Was disenfranchising all the Ba'ath a mistake? Would simply having more boots on the ground have solved all problems? I'm not convinced.

Here are a few hindsight observations I'm more sure of, however.

1. Muqtada al-Sadr should have been put under arrest at the first sign of trouble he stirred up, the murder of Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei outside the Imam Ali mosque by a mob of al-Sadr's supporters in April 2003. He should have been made an example of quickly. It would have won over many Sunnis and moderate Shi'ites and his absence from the rebuilding of Iraq would have been no loss.

2. The first 300 looters ought to have been shot summarily.

3. More consistent presence of U.S. personnel in key areas of the country. A U.S. Army brigade establishes its presence in city X. The generals sit down with the local sheiks and politicians. The platoon leaders get to know the maze of the streets. The privates get to know the local kids by sight.

Then a few months later, the entire unit rotates out and goes home, and, say, a brigade of Marines moves in. Everything begins again. If a local man or woman has decided to confide in the U.S. Army unit about insurgent activity, suddenly his or her protection has vanished. His or her confidence has been proven to be misplaced.

If the Army unit has come to understand the web of relationships between tribes and local political leaders in one way, the new U.S. military men may choose to favor other figures, and may not maintain the same deals and arrangements that were worked out before they showed up.

Or they may take an entirely different approach to their work -- intensive patroling as opposed to casual contacts, or ignoring the local social structures altogether. The protocols for house searches will have to be worked out all over again.

What incentive is there for the locals to put their trust in that situation?

Yet the American troops can't stay in the same place forever. This is a military with many family men, and in such a situation as they find themselves, frequent relief from the daily grind of occupation is their right and need.

Would it be possible to keep the U.S. military units in place in Iraq over a course of months or years, and rotate the individual soldiers and Marines out in blocks -- say one quarter of each unit for three months at a time, just to use random figures?

It would seem continuity would benefit both sides and ultimately make our work there shorter.