Have We Just Hit the Tar Baby?

by Patrick J. Buchanan – April 16, 2003

No one knows how America’s occupation of Iraq will play out.

Optimists say this will be like Germany and Japan after World War II, which were converted into democratic allies for the duration of the Cold War. Pessimists point to Lebanon and Israel’s invasion of 1982.

Put me down among the pessimists. I think Brer Rabbit just hit the tar baby.

In 1982, after a terror attack maimed an Israeli diplomat in London, Ariel Sharon sent his army crashing into Lebanon to expel a PLO that Israel claimed was a mortal peril to its northern border.

The military campaign was a brilliant success. The Israeli army was welcomed as Lebanon’s liberators from a PLO that had entered that country in 1970, after being driven out of Jordan. The Shi’ite people of south Lebanon had wanted Arafat expelled, just as the Shi’ites of southern Iraq wanted Saddam overthrown.

But when the Israelis stayed on, Shi’ites came to see them as occupiers. Hezbollah harvested recruits, and after 18 years, drove the Israelis out and annihilated Israel’s Christian allies in the South Lebanon Army. It is the only defeat Arabs have ever inflicted on Israel. Today, Israel’s border with Lebanon is its least secure.

We Americans see ourselves, and are surely seen by many in Iraq, as the liberators of Iraq from the brutalitarian rule of Saddam Hussein. Yet, that is not how we are seen by all Arabs.

Across the Arab world, our invasion was opposed by 90 percent of the people. And we deceive ourselves if we think that, after our victory, our presence is now supported by 90 percent of the Iraqis, who have suffered and died in the scores of thousands in two wars with the United States and during 12 years of sanctions.

If America is given enough time – and we are willing to devote enough energy, resources and goodwill – we can give the lie to Arab propaganda that we are there to occupy, rule and loot the country, and convert it into a cat’s paw for U.S. imperial ambitions.

The questions are: Do we have the resources and will? Do we have the time? And what, exactly, do we intend to do with Iraq?

Already, Iraqis have endured a week of anarchic looting that has taken the bloom off our April rose of victory. Already, ethnic and religious fault lines among Shias, Sunnis and Kurds have been reopened and deepened by random violence.

Our dilemma is apparent: To make good on President Bush’s claim we are there to build a free, democratic, unified Iraq, we may have to keep 100,000 troops there for years. But any semi-permanent presence of thousands of U.S. troops is certain to convince Arabs ours is an imperial mission, to dominate the Middle East. The longer we stay, the more we will attract Arab and Islamic jihadists who cannot fight Abrams tanks or F-16s, but can shoot U.S. soldiers and Marines on the streets of Baghdad, and disappear.

Americans have shown they cannot be defeated in conventional war. But can we win a Battle of Algiers in Baghdad, if Iraqis and their allies choose to fight one, as Hezbollah chose to fight one for a generation in Lebanon?

We may soon be faced with that question. For there are surely thousands of Iraqi Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard troops who survived U.S. air strikes and ground assaults and melted into the population. And there are hundreds of Islamic warriors who have slipped in from Iran and Syria.

Moreover, there are regimes that may have welcomed the overthrow of Saddam but who will not welcome any permanent U.S. domination of Iraq. First among them is Iran.

After supporting the United States in its war to oust the Taliban, Iran moved to create a sphere of influence in western Afghanistan, beyond the control of the pro-American government in Kabul. Will Teheran not attempt to do the same in the Shia region of southern Iraq, after we served her purposes by ridding Iraq of Iran’s enemy, Saddam Hussein?

While the swiftness and totality of America’s victory surprised only those who predicted “another Vietnam,” the lack of resistance in the cities of Iraq, while welcome, is unsettling. Did the Republican Guard run away, only to fight another day, in another way?

Clearly, most of the Islamic world wanted to see the United States lose this war. Much of it wishes to see America driven out of their region. While it is in our interest to show Iraqis and Arabs that our presence is beneficial and benign, we may have only a short time to do so, before Iraq becomes Lebanon writ large.