Frederick W. Kagan: We Must Win in Iraq

Roundup: Historians' Take

Frederick W. Kagan, the military historian, writing in the LAT (Dec. 28, 2003):

The capture of Saddam Hussein could be a turning point in the U.S. war on terrorism. Properly handled, it may restore momentum to flagging U.S. efforts to establish a stable democracy in Iraq . In addition, a Hussein trial might end, once and for all, the divisive and enervating argument over whether the war was justified in the first place. Above all, Hussein's capture and possible trial might become a new symbol of hope throughout the Middle East , hope that tyranny ultimately fails. Much, however, depends on how the U.S. moves from here.

One of the weapons in Al Qaeda's arsenal is the widespread feeling in the Muslim world that its rulers are corrupt and tyrannical. The effective disenfranchisement of most Muslims living in "managed democracies" -- or overt oligarchies or monarchies -- creates an attentive audience for Osama bin Laden's calls for jihad. One of Bin Laden's reasons for attacking the United States is its continuing support for such regimes. It isn't primarily a struggle about the distribution of wealth. There are, after all, many countries in the world less well off than, say, Saudi Arabia . It's a struggle about the distribution of liberty.

All this makes Iraq central to the "war on terror." By invading the country, President Bush bet that he could destroy one of the standard-bearers of Arab tyranny and replace him with a stable democracy. There is virtually no historical precedent for this in the Muslim states of the Middle East . Most Muslims have been able to choose only among varieties of despotism, and Bin Laden's theocracy might seem no worse to them than most. This lack of political options is a key element of Bin Laden's appeal.

If the U.S. succeeds in establishing democracy in Iraq , the situation would be fundamentally altered. No longer could Bin Laden claim that democracy was unsuitable for Muslims and could not work within the Umma, as the Islamic world calls itself. He would be forced to compare his authoritarian Islamic creed not just with tyrants and corrupt despots but also with liberty. That would be a much more difficult task. A democratic Iraq would thus undermine one of Bin Laden's central arguments. Failure to establish a stable democracy in Iraq , on the other hand, would add new power to Bin Laden's claims and new momentum to his movement.

It is unfortunate that this larger issue in the war against terrorism has been obscured by the debate over the legitimacy of the war. Critics who have fixed on the failure so far to find weapons of mass destruction as evidence of a Bush deception miss this point. Removing one of the worst regimes of all time, one that traded in death and torture, sends a strong signal to corrupt and authoritarian Arab and Muslim governments that reform may be the better part of wisdom. Reform is bad news for Bin Laden and his terrorist network.

With the stakes so high, failure in Iraq is unthinkable.

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