November 3, 2003 | Commentary on Middle East
In war, political and moral support at home is as critical as victory on any battlefield overseas. Americans learned that lesson from our painful experience in Vietnam. We are relearning it today in Iraq.
The recent rough patch of events in Iraq has raised doubts about our efforts there among some Americans. Last week's Newsweek cover labeled Iraq "Bush's $87 Billion Mess." Nor have leaked Pentagon memos questioning the effectiveness of U.S. post-war operations in Iraq bolstered popular determination to stay the course.
Pundits have directly, or indirectly, used the dreaded "V-word" - Vietnam - likening the recent spate of bombings during the holy season of Ramadan to the Viet Cong's 1968 Lunar New Year (Tet) offensive, the tipping point where U.S. public and political support for the Vietnam War began its slow slide into oblivion.
Regrettably, that glib level commentary is all that many frenetically busy Americans hear. Though most of us seemed to fully understand (and support) the need to depose Saddam Hussein's odious regime, many don't see why reconstructing Iraq is worth any significant price in American blood and treasure.
With Saddam gone, many feel, the job is done; it's time for the troops to come home. It's a dangerous perception - one the White House must immediately dispel by going beyond its "Saddam was a Bad Guy" message and clearly presenting the bigger, strategic picture that demands our continued efforts in Iraq.
If the Bush administration doesn't change the tenor of the public debate on Iraq, its (rightful) efforts to drive a stake into the heart of tyranny and terror in the Middle East could be jeopardized.
As counterintuitive as it sounds, the American people must come to understand that: Stabilizing Iraq is actually all about destabilizing the Middle East. Only by reconstructing Iraq as an open, free, secular society, can we deconstruct the closed, dark, repressive place the Middle East became during the Cold War.
The tragedy of 9/11, and its continuing violent global aftermath, proves that the status quo in the Middle East is intrinsically disruptive of international peace and security. America's well-being and security - and that of our friends and allies - depend upon changing the region for the better.
If that status quo survives, rogue nations like Syria and Iran will continue to threaten American interests and security, and those of our friends and allies, for decades to come.
Iraq is arguably the center of gravity in the Middle East. (Just look at the map.) Developing an Iraq favorable to the United States and democratic values will shake the very pillars of evil (from terrorism to proliferating weapons of mass destruction to political and religious repression) that plague the region and inevitably affect all of us.
Transforming Baghdad from dictatorship to democracy is a key to altering the face of the Middle East for the better - once and for all.
Success - or failure - in Iraq could be the pivotal event in the history of the United States in this century.
President Bush is right to stay the course. But to succeed, he must actively engage his opponents - and skeptics - about the continuing U.S. role in post-Saddam Iraq. The president must clearly explain to the American people why their continued support and sacrifice is justified, because victory on the battleground of ideas at home is key to winning the battle abroad.
Peter Brookes is a Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs for the Heritage Foundation.
Reprinted with permission of The New York Post