The Magazine

After Falluja

From the April 12 / April 19, 2004 issue: We cannot permit the outrages in Mogadishu and Falluja to have similar effects.

Apr 12, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 30 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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THE SIMILARITY struck everyone right away: Mogadishu, October 3, 1993--Falluja, March 31, 2004. But we cannot permit these two outrages to be similar in their effect. At this key moment, the Bush administration has to ensure that the reactions to Falluja and Mogadishu go down in the history books as studies in contrast, not in similarity.

Mogadishu triggered, in a few months, the withdrawal of American troops from Somalia, and victory for those who killed our soldiers. Slaughter in Rwanda followed in a few months--a slaughter the Economist this week (on the 10th anniversary) called "the purest genocide since 1945, and perhaps the single greatest act of evil since Pol Pot turned Cambodia into a killing field." The Economist further noted that the "West's reluctance to get involved was largely a consequence of America's shambolic intervention in Somalia the previous year." Or more precisely: a consequence of America's humiliating retreat from Somalia.

Mogadishu encouraged Osama bin Laden in his judgment that America was a "weak horse," a nation that could not take casualties. Mogadishu therefore deserves a place of dishonor at the head of a decade of failures to respond seriously to attacks against our soldiers, diplomats, and citizens. From Mogadishu to the Khobar Towers, the African embassies, and the USS Cole, American passivity helped Osama bin Laden make the case to prospective jihadists that their cause would prevail. Then came 9/11, and a decisive response.

And now Falluja. The New York Times last week warned, to its credit, against "a panicky, casualty-driven withdrawal" from Iraq. But then, to its discredit, it lapsed into worry that the "emotions" generated by "pictures of burned Americans hanging from a bridge" in Falluja might lead to "overwhelming reprisals." If only.

It would be unfair to dwell on the lame comment by one American commander on the day of the atrocity: "Should we have sent in a tank so we could have gotten, with all due respect, four dead bodies back? What good would that have done? A mob is a mob. We would have just provoked them. The smart play was to let this thing fade out." Really? Unprovoked by the sight of a tank, terrorists in the Falluja area continued in the following days their assaults against U.S. troops and Iraqis working with Americans. In any case, the alternative to inaction on March 31 did not have to be a single tank. We could have sent many tanks, along with air support, to disperse the mob, kill those who didn't disperse, intimidate onlookers, and recover the bodies of the dead Americans. And we could immediately have put a price on the head of the killers and those who desecrated the bodies.

Still, since that first day, the responses of the Bush administration and of American commanders have been commendable: assurances that we will not cut and run, and commitments to punish those involved, and to reenter and "pacify" Falluja. We expect a strong--even "overwhelming"--military response along those lines in the coming days.

It has been the great achievement of President Bush, since September 11, to break the bad habits of the 1990s. The president's critics now claim that any president would have done the same after the attacks on New York and Washington. This is by no means clear. The pattern of passivity ran deep. The temptations of accommodation and wishful thinking are still strong. Indeed, they are so strong that the administration arguably hasn't broken as sharply with the failed policies of the past decade as it should have. The size of the military has not been increased; there was a reluctance to send ground troops into Afghanistan in November-December 2001 and to commit enough ground troops to Iraq; there seems to be an unwillingness to hold Iran accountable for sheltering al Qaeda leaders; there is an aversion to pressuring Saudi Arabia.

Still, the Bush administration has shown real strength and impressive decisiveness in taking on terrorist groups and states. We trust that U.S. troops will soon move to uproot what seems to have become a kind of terrorist sanctuary in Falluja, and to ensure that those who seek to drive us from Iraq are thwarted and indeed routed. If the atrocities in Falluja lead to a deepening of the U.S. commitment to victory in Iraq, and to a sharpening of the Bush administration's sword in the war on terror, then we will have properly honored the sacrifice of those who died March 31 in Falluja--and a decade earlier in Mogadishu as well.

--William Kristol