There is simply no getting around the fact that the wars on terror and in Iraq are in part, a battle of ideas. If we kill three terrorists but seven new ones sign up, how are we faring? If we beat down the insurgents in Iraq but in the process turn much of that country against us and our goals, would you consider that a victory? If we force data out of prisoners through aggressive tactics, but someone takes pictures, was the data worth the effort?
None of these questions are easy and as we’ve seen all too often in recent months, the right answers (if they exist at all) can be elusive. There is no doubt that by any reasonable standard, terrorists deserve to be hunted down and killed. But the rest of picture is not always so clear. For example, does hunting down and killing those terrorists actually help the broader effort of winning the war on terror?
An example: When the world first saw the images of the contractors whose burned bodies dangled from a bridge in Fallujah, our reaction was one of disgust and anger. The actions of the perpetrators were evidence of a segment of a society gone mad and called, loudly, for retribution.
That’s certainly how we saw it in America. And according to a friend who was covering the war on the ground in Iraq, that’s pretty much how most Iraqis saw it. Many Iraqis were embarrassed and sickened by the images being broadcast throughout the world.
Then, following the President’s comment that “I want heads to roll,” U.S. troops retaliated and looked to control Fallujah. In the process, hundreds of civilians were killed. The insurgents had to like that. Why? More support for them, more anger at the Americans. And in the terror business, anger is the leading form of currency.
It is on a certain level why one drags bodies through streets and then dangles burnt corpses like bait on the end of string.
Was the U.S. justified in going after the insurgents to retaliate for the brutal killing and hanging of the contractors? Yes.
Did that retaliation ultimately cost more American lives and hurt American interests in Iraq? Yes.
And there you have it. A new occupied territory with the U.S. as Israel and the Iraqi insurgents deploying strategies honed by their Palestinian counterparts. Or is that Russia and Chechnya? Think it’s a coincidence that Hamas and Arafat launch suicide bombings every time a peace-related deal is nearly reached? Of course not. Everyone knows that the goal of those suicide bombings is to prevent peace. And yet every time, it works.
Building something is a lot more difficult than keeping something from being built.
For all the tough talk and the doubt-free policies, the fact is that things are probably going about the way Osama bin Laden hoped that they would (assuming he’s an optimist). As Howard Fineman wrote in Newsweek: “There is precious little good news from Iraq, or from the wider war on terror. In fact, things couldn’t be going better for bin Laden if he’d written the script.”
And now that script has pictures.
In the piece excerpted above, Fineman does not offer a solution. And I will not offer one here. That could be one of the key challenges facing the Kerry candidacy. There may not be a decent answer in Iraq today. Bring in international troops? Why would they agree to come? Pull-out? Unthinkable. Longer tours, more troops? Unfair, politically impossible.
Poll numbers indicate that more and more Americans are frustrated with Iraq and with the overall performance of the Bush administration. Yet, Kerry’s numbers have remained fairly flat. Maybe people just don’t know him yet. But maybe people are waiting around for Kerry to offer up a logical solution to Iraq, a better way to fix the current problems. And that may be the best thing the Bush campaign has going for it right now because history hasn’t yet come up with an answer for these kinds of questions and it’s unlikely to happen between now and November.