Moqtada Al-Sadr's uprising and the violence in Fallujah set off a frenzy of panic in Washington. In remarks rebroadcast repeatedly on al-Jazeera, Sen. Edward Kennedy said, "Iraq is George Bush's Vietnam." Jimmy Carter called the entire Iraq campaign "a tragedy." Even as Coalition forces contained violence to just three pockets, Sen. Robert Byrd, a member of the Armed Services Committee, demanded a road map out for American forces in the face of the challenge. And Pat Buchanan told the New York Times, "We have gotten ourselves bogged down in what is clearly a quagmire." While newspaper headlines may scream doom and gloom, the view from Iraq is more restrained. There has been significant success there, but both allies and adversaries detect weakness in the American war on terrorism. Iraqi democrats and liberals remain scarred by George H. W. Bush's 1991 decision to abandon Iraqis who followed his call to rise up for freedom. Our opponents--Iranian-backed guerrillas, Saudi-financed Wahhabis, and Syrian-supported Baathist remnants--believe that the United States lacks the will to fight. Iranian and other television stations rerun scenes of the U.S. withdrawal from Beirut following the 1983 Marine barracks bombing, and the flight from Somalia ten years later. The United States has done little to counter such propaganda.
If the U.S. stays its course, however, the Moqtada-Fallujah uprising will become a forgotten footnote in the history of Iraq's reconstruction. Coalition forces have had consistent success in shutting down insurgent action. Ever since insurgents began their campaign to derail the Iraqi political process, Coalition forces have quickly adjusted to pacify them. In many ways, al-Sadr's revolt appears to be a last gasp from a firebrand radical who has seen his domestic support hemorrhage.
For three months following Baghdad's fall, anti-Coalition activity was light. July saw the frequent use of snipers, and increasingly sophisticated bomb attacks, against U.S. soldiers. Thirty-six American soldiers died, but, thanks to good intelligence, Coalition forces rolled up these Baathist cells.
Islamists began attacking soft targets, such as foreign embassies, the United Nations compound, and hotels. A truck bomb at U.N. headquarters on August 19 killed 23, including envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello. By that evening, traffic patterns had changed to prevent vehicles from approaching too closely the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Within days, hardened concrete walls had sprung up around hotels. Speed bumps and obstacles hampered the approach of suicide car-bombs. These precautions worked. Soft-target bomb attacks ceased to be effective. Insurgents again targeted the U.N.'s Baghdad compound on September 22, but killed only one unarmed Iraqi police officer. An October 12 double-suicide car-bombing at the Baghdad Hotel killed "just" six individuals, as the vehicles had been prevented from getting closer. While the October rocket attack on the Rashid Hotel garnered world headlines because deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz was inside, only one soldier died. Each attack, meanwhile, exposed cells that Coalition and Iraqi security forces subsequently crushed.
As embassy attacks failed to drive out all but the weak-kneed U.N., the terrorists turned their attention to Iraqis. But terrorism no more deterred Iraqis from their partnership with the Coalition than it did Westerners from working with Iraqi democrats. October's car-bomb attacks against Iraqi police stations killed about 50, but Iraqi police did not quit, and the pace of recruitment did not slacken. Both the frequency and lethality of subsequent police attacks declined.
In November, insurgents shifted their tactics again to probe for weakness among Washington's coalition partners. A deadly attack at the Italian military police headquarters in Nasiriya killed 19 Italians (and at least 12 Iraqis), but Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi stood his ground. "No intimidation will change our determination to help this country get back on its feet, to create a government and ensure security and freedom," he said. Attacks on Japanese diplomats and Korean aid workers did not deter either country from deploying forces. Terrorism occurs not because of poverty or disenchantment, but rather because some nations allow terrorism to succeed. If countries do not reward violence with concession, then terrorism ceases to be a worthwhile tool. When nations challenge terrorism, Iraqis respect them. When a Japanese contingent got to the southern town of Samawa in January, residents gave them a "pop-star welcome," according to press reports.
Terrorists next targeted Iraqi translators, engineers, and cleaning women working for Coalition bases. Iraqis reacted to the murder of their countrymen with disgust. The disdain of ordinary Iraqis for the rejectionists only increased after the bombings in Karbala and Khadimiya massacred more than 180 pilgrims. Iraqis blamed the Coalition for inadequate security, but Iranian-inspired calls for a withdrawal of Coalition forces fell flat. Likewise, instead of leading to a Somalia-style withdrawal, recent attacks on American contractors have provoked a forceful response.
The Moqtada-Fallujah insurgency did not occur in a vacuum. As the political process advances, opponents of democracy are becoming increasingly desperate to find a strategy that weakens U.S. resolve. So far, they have been unsuccessful. Iraqis are upset, not because they desire Coalition withdrawal, but because American calls for more U.N. involvement or recruit for outright withdrawal do little but project weakness. Similarly, they watch with disbelief as Major General David Petraeus argues for the rehabilitation of high-level Baathists. In the Middle East, premature compromise and the perception of vulnerability spurs violence, not peace. The vast majority of Iraqis want the U.S. to remain. In recent days, the Shiite hierarchy has pointedly refused to endorse al-Sadr, calling instead for calm. And most Sunnis would rather stay home than support the Islamists and Baathist remnants who would lead Iraq down the road to chaos. According to Wael al- Rukadi, one of Nasiriya's leading Shiite clerics, "Triggering the violent incidents were people from the outside, to be exact, from Fallujah and the Western part of the country. . . . A withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq at this time would lead to an all-out civil war."
On April 9, Iran's former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, delivered a sermon in which he came close to plagiarizing Pat Buchanan's statements of two days before. "The U.S. is bogged down in an Iraq quagmire. It has to pull out immediately," Rafsanjani said. On April 8, Iran's Islamic Revolution Guard Corps had issued a statement warning that "a fate more horrifying than Vietnam awaits America in the morass of Iraq." Our adversaries have a goal, and they seize on weakness. The people of Iraq hope that President Bush will not reward them.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.