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Monday, September 01, 2003

NEVERMIND VIETNAM, WHO WANTS ANOTHER KOREA Just over two weeks ago a psychological threshold was crossed: more US servicemen have been killed in Iraq since US president Bush declared major combat operations to be over than in the actual combat phase. On the same day a further three members of the Royal Military Police died in an ambush in southern Iraq. Directly on the heels of that came the devastating attack on the UN headquarters that left 17 dead. And then things got bad: in a ferocious attack on the leading Shiia cleric over a hundred Iraqis were killed. Pundits of all stripes and colours are declaring a quagmire and the feared V-word is being bandied about thoughtlessly.

Leaving aside the vast differences in the scale of the carnage, is there perhaps something to the comparison of the coalition situation in Iraq today with that in Vietnam three decades earlier? Are we not stuck in a battle in which we don|t seem to be able to win with any kind of proportionate effort? Iraqi democracy is a farfetched dream, the prospect of billions of oil dollars a vanishing mirage and even basic day-to-day security is non-existent. Is that an accurate description of current conditions in Iraq?
It's certainly true that big problems on all these counts remain, but a more realistic appraisal of the situation gives room for some balanced optimism. And why not? After all, how much better was the situation four months after the war ended in Germany and Japan 1945? In fact for a comparison we can remain far closer to our own time: how much better was the situation in Kosovo 1999 four months after the end of full-scale hostilities? The sad truth is that in economic terms the situation is little improved four years after the end of hostilities. Even more ominously, on the issue that is currently of high importance for Iraq, namely electricity supply, the opinion in Kosovo is that it's worse than at the end of the 1999 bombings.
In Iraq a lot of conditions have already been set that should ultimately ensure a peaceful, prosperous and mildly liberal and/or democratic Iraq. One of the main stumbling blocks at the moment are the persistent attacks both on vital infrastructure such as oil and water pipelines, and on Iraqis and coalition troops alike. It is yet unclear who exactly is behind these attacks: Baathist holdovers, foreign jihadists or a combination of both. In the net result it doesn’t actually matter much as the goal is the same. What both these possible culprits have in common is the desire to see the American-led efforts to build a better Iraq fail. The chaos resulting from a coalition withdrawal would give both to opportunity to battle it out for control over Iraq. However the advantage is on the coalition's side as the terrorists, whoever they may be, have no serious popular support base, the non plus ultra of any effective subversion campaign.
Perhaps I should add to that, so far, because unfortunately there are some areas where Iraqis are dissatisfied with the coalition's conduct. Besides the security issues, which outside the Baghdad-Najaf-Tikrit triangle are generally speaking negligible, the main complaints are about the slow pace of getting public services up and running. If the Iraqi people are not to turn against those outsiders who wish to help them, some visible progress needs to happen soon. Perhaps the coming formation of the interim Iraqi cabinet and the installation of new power generators in Baghdad will entrench the coalition’s acceptance.
Some Western commentators and politicians think “internationalising” the mission and putting it under UN auspices could also achieve this. This would be unwise. It would be unwise because responsibility for success or failure of the reconstruction will remain with the coalition and the attacks against the UN clearly show that the terrorists want them out as well. At the same time the UN’s popularity is roughly equal to that of the coalition in the wider populace, so nothing would be gained. What would be lost however, would be the clear line of command and sense of purpose that the coalition has.

But it is not just with the internal dimension were the Vietnam analogy creeps in wrongly. What makes anybody think that the current imbroglio is geopolitically comparable? This is a key battle for the security of the free world. That is why the references to Vietnam are wrong. Vietnam wasn't a key battle. Korea on the other hand was. It is a comparison that offers some revealing insights.
The West didn't lose the Korean War but the stalemate established still lasts on five decades later, at the moment is probably the most dangerous place on earth and bears the risk of nuclear war. A decisive win would have avoided the current situation and would have spared the North Korean people the unbelievable suffering the Kim regime has put them through. Additionally a big victory right at the beginning of the Cold War would have given the West an edge over the Soviet Union and would thus have quickened the end of that conflict.
In Iraq now we have a not dissimilar situation. The forces that threaten the West and want to keep the Middle East in the terrorgenic condition it is in now, are all concentrating their efforts on driving the coalition out of Iraq. In Korea, as in Iraq prior to 9/11, the West dithered and through a lack of nerve and vision managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It is this over-restraint that fed the illusions of Saddam and al Quaeda into thinking they could endanger Western interests and security with impunity because the West was too weak-willed. In Iraq we need to show, both for the sakes of the long-suffering Iraqi people and for our prospects in the war on terror, that we have the mettle that it takes to win.
This is of course the reason why the terrorists must not be allowed to win. If it is possible to drive the West out of Iraq that will be the most tremendous victory our enemies could possibly dream of; its propaganda effect would far outweigh the attacks on the World Trade Center. As a consequence the word would be out that Washington and the rest of the West have lost it and no longer have the stomach for a fight. This would make any further attempts to fight terrorism and create a more secure global environment virtually impossible, because any terrorist and rogue regime on the planet would laugh off any threat of military force. The consequences of defeat in Iraq would be catastrophic both for the Iraqi people and our own security. There is really no choice, we need to win - and we will.

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