When it comes to Iraq, there may be no good options. But at least one man believes that we still have a chance to make matters better in Iraq — and he is no starry-eyed intellectual fantasizing about the creation a democratic oasis in a region of the world awash in blood and tyranny. Retired Gen. Jack Keane, former vice chief of staff for the U.S. Army, put it bluntly recently: "The notion that we can’t provide protection for people in one of the capital cities of this world (Baghdad) is just rubbish." But, Keane complains, the military in Iraq has not been given this as its mission, nor has it been provided with the necessary means to carry out such a mission.
Keane was interviewed this week on NPR’s "Diane Rehm Show," where he called for more troops to secure Baghdad and fight the growing insurgency. It was shocking to hear him speak, not because anything he said seemed wrong. To the contrary, he spoke not only common sense, but from a depth of experience and knowledge that made me want to scream at the radio: "Why isn’t this man in charge?"
All we’ve heard recently from active duty officers are promises that victory is just around the corner, or that the Iraqis themselves will soon take over fighting this war for us. No one seems to have any idea how to win the war on the ground, and the only question is: How quickly can we get out?
But Keane sounded a different note. Of course his plan would require putting more troops into Baghdad and the surrounding area, which would mean more U.S. casualties in the short run. But if we put in the right number and correct types of troops — combat and special forces units trained in counterinsurgency — we might stand a chance of defeating the enemy.
What was most refreshing about Keane’s position was that it stemmed from doing what is in the United States’ interest, not accommodating the feuding factions in Iraq or satisfying public opinion here or anywhere else in the world. The general was talking about our interests in facing a determined enemy bent on our destruction, which sees Iraq as only one battle in what will be a protracted war on many fronts. Any other view of the stakes in Iraq is naive.
While it is true that we elected to invade Iraq, we did not start the war, which began with the first al Qaeda attacks on U.S. targets: the first World Trade Center attack, the embassy bombings in Africa and the assault on the U.S.S. Cole. And it will not end if we retreat in ignominy.
As Keane reminded his NPR audience, the United States is quite capable of fighting insurgencies when we decide that is our mission. As he pointed out, we were successful in Vietnam at stopping the Vietcong’s terrorism against the South Vietnamese. We failed in Vietnam because we lost political will and we refused to fight the North Vietnamese Army on its own turf, choosing to remain on defense to the very end, despite bombing raids on the North. Despite the apologists who act as if U.S. withdrawal from Saigon "liberated" the Vietnamese people, the millions who fled or died in Southeast Asia in the aftermath of the communist takeover in Vietnam and Cambodia were witness to the horror that followed our retreat.
The big difference between Vietnam and Iraq is that our enemy will hunt us down if we leave Iraq, whereas the communist victors in Southeast Asia were content to enslave just their own people.
The president will be considering his options over the holidays, an unenviable task. He could do a lot worse than to call in Keane for a frank one-on-one discussion. At least the president would get a strategy that would actually leave Iraq a better place than we found it.