Memorial Day: The War in Iraq
Walter Russell Mead
While the politicians washed their hands and hung up white flags, and while the press lords gibbered and foamed, the brass kept their heads and the troops stood tall. And gradually, a miracle happened. America started winning the war.
We won it the one way the critics could not imagine: we won the contest with Al-Qaeda for Iraqi Sunni support. The Sunni Arabs of Iraq had seen the Americans at their worst: culturally insensitive and arrogant invaders; failed economic planners and bad managers; cruel abusers of prisoners; incompetent protectors. They saw Al-Qaeda at its best: God-fearing freedom fighters traveling great distances and taking great personal risks to uphold the cause of the believers against the foreign oppressor.
Yet chief after chief, tribe after tribe and town after town, the Sunni Arabs of Iraq made a fateful decision. They chose America over Al-Qaeda. They took the measure of America’s officers and combat troops, and they took the measure of Al-Qaeda’s ‘jihadis’. They saw us warts and all — and decided that the future lay with America rather than the woman-stoning bomb nuts. Our troops would secure the safety of their families better than Al-Qaeda could. Despite the immense religious and cultural differences between us, democratic America stood closer to their values than fanatical Al-Qaeda.
That decision by the Sunni Arabs of Iraq is what left Al-Qaeda gutted and floundering. That is what turned it from strategic threat to abiding nuisance. That is what set the limits of Al-Qaeda’s appeal and turned Osama bin Laden from the aspiring caliph of a great Islamic wave to (apparently) a porn-watching recluse in a Pakistani garrison town.
The Sunni Arabs made that decision, but it was the competence, honor and courage of the Americans on the ground whose conduct won them over. Suspicious Sunnis, still burning with resentment over foreign invasion and loss of status to the Shi’a, watched our troops fight Al-Qaeda, watched young Americans lay down their lives to protect Muslim children and old people from suicide bombers. They learned to believe that American officers keep their promises and deliver on their commitments. They saw that an army composed of people from many religions (and some holding no religious belief of any kind) lives up to the ideals of Islamic combat better than an army of fanatical zealots. They also saw for themselves to what barbarities and absurdities Al-Qaeda’s parody of Islam can lead.
Al-Qaeda’s rejection by Sunni Iraq punctured the Osama bubble in the Muslim world. His following didn’t dry up overnight, but his dizzying rise yielded to dispiriting decline. And the damage went farther than Al-Qaeda. Radical Islam lost its allure as the coming thing in the Arab world. It is no longer unrivaled as the ideology of youth and the hope of the nations.
The French scholar Gilles Kepel, no friend of the war in Iraq and no admirer of George Bush, makes the core point. Osama’s dream was to shift history into the realm of myth. He passionately believed that the ordinary course of mundane history wasn’t what really mattered: there was a divine and a miraculous history just behind the veil. Osama aimed to pierce the veil, to bring hundreds of millions of Muslims into his reality, transfixed and transported by the vision of a climactic fight of good against evil, of God against America and its local allies.
That dream died in Iraq.
But on this Memorial Day it is not enough to remember, and give thanks, that Osama’s dream died before he did and that the terror movement has been gravely wounded at its heart.
Because the dream didn’t just die.
It was killed.
And it was killed by coalition forces. They killed it by fighting harder and smarter than the enemy and they killed it by winning trust and building bridges better than the enemy. They did it because they were better, more honorable warriors and better, more honorable partners for peace. Mostly American and mostly Christian, the coalition forcers were more compassionate, more just, more protective of the poor and more respectful of Arab women than the crazed thugs who thought setting off bombs in the market was fulfilling God’s will.
We must continue to honor and thank the Arab allies and tribal leaders who made the choice for America in a dark and a difficult time. But especially on this Memorial Day we must honor and remember the American heroes who by their lives and by their deaths brought victory out of defeat, understanding out of hatred and gave both Muslims and non-Muslims a chance to get this whole thing right.
The story of America’s victory over terror in Mesopotamia needs to be told.
See also my coverage:
As you can tell, I”ve been on the right side from the start.
(This post had 28 pingbacks to my own blog… Not as many as this herculean effort. That last link makes it 29.)