The Magazine

Nervous in Baghdad

From the July 25, 2005 issue: Do Americans have the will to stay the course?

Jul 25, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 42 • By AUSTIN BAY
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I took his chair and proceeded to read two-dozen emails, from Europe, North America, Australia, and Asia, including a note from a young woman working on border control issues in Afghanistan. On an amphib warship 20 kilometers off Kuwait, I hit a half-dozen websites and scanned the latest Beltway hoopla. Though I was "over there," "back here" headlines dominated cyberspace. An alarming number of them these days betray impatience with our progress in the war on terror. It leaves you wondering if anyone in Washington--at least anyone in the Baby Boomer political class--knows what it takes to win a long, tedious, unavoidable war.

Success in the war on terror may strike New York Times readers and CNN viewers as a radically optimistic notion. The worst haters of America and its counteroffensive against terror--following the lead of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, al Qaeda's man in Iraq, and Britain's hard-left buffoon, George Galloway--acknowledge no conceivable measure of success. After all, they want America to lose. Every car bomb in Baghdad, they will say, just creates more terrorists, and America's war on terror reduces to the soundbite "blood for oil."

Galloway-Zarqawi critiques are the latest embodiment of anti-American themes with deep roots, dating back to Soviet Cold War propaganda. The connections ain't theory. Terrorist organizations in the Middle East--the initial crop largely Palestinian--were armed and trained by the Soviets. The Soviets, in concert with Arab clients like Syria and Nasser's Egypt, promoted the Arab-Israeli conflict as an American conspiracy. These Cold War Soviet sources of anti-Americanism receive scant attention, but they are the foundation of the jihadists' information war, and fuel the conspiracy theorists at www.democraticunderground.org--cranks the Howard Dean wing of the DNC exploits for their money and votes. The bottom line for Galloway-Zarqawi types: Any event on the planet--real or imagined--that dishonest rhetoric can connect to either the United States or Israel always creates more terrorists.

Less implacable critics of the Bush administration recognize two negative metrics implying a degree of success in the war on terror: (1) There's been no use of weapons of mass destruction by al Qaeda and its allies and (2) no second 9/11 has occurred on U.S. soil. More careful and generous analysts remember the Afghan elections of October 2004, then an Orange Revolution in Ukraine, then an election in Palestine, then the ink-stained vote in Iraq.

The truth is, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Southeast Asia, and Pakistan are all arguably successes in the making--slow, incremental, 1.01-steps-forward-one-step-back successes, where the enemies are tough, determined, and often well-financed. To call them snakes insults reptiles, but they die slowly, and they are vicious in their agony.

ON JUNE 23 CENTCOM commander General John Abizaid told a Senate hearing that the Iraqi insurgency was at "about the same" strength it was six months ago. "I believe there are more foreign fighters coming into Iraq than there were six months ago. . . . We see good progress in both Iraq and Afghanistan . . . but we are realistic. And we know that great change is often accompanied by great violence." I was still in Afghanistan, so I missed the general's performance. The pictures I saw on the web show the burly, intellectual Abizaid as a cool and serious senior officer, a kaleidoscope of military ribbons draping his dress green uniform.

I did get to hear Abizaid on June 16, while waiting at the East Gate of the U.S. Marine base at Falluja. I was in Iraq again, this time with a note pad and camera instead of a pistol. My flak vest was a black police SWAT jacket, more svelte than the heavy, plated monster I wore last year while racing along Baghdad's Route Irish (see "The Millennium War," The Weekly Standard, January 3 / January 10, 2005). The temperature was approaching 120 degrees Fahrenheit, which didn't bother me so much. Last year I'd humped Baghdad at 130. The dust, however, irritated me. Abizaid--wearing desert camouflage, a flak vest, and his 1st Ranger Battalion combat patch--looked thoroughly composed, displaying the earned gravitas of the superior combat commander who knows dust, gripes, mistakes, direct fire, and writers come with the job.

He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. I had no idea what was coming. Then, I swear, I knew.

"The mood of how this war is going in Baghdad and Arab capitals is better than in Washington and London," Abizaid said. Déjà vu all over again, though with dust this time, and no roll: It's the conversation with the naval officer.