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Monday, July 7, 2008

Light in Iraq won't burn on optimism alone

LOS ANGELES — A measure of self-delusion can be healthy if it deters the outbreak of another round of perhaps even more dangerous and destructive self-delusion. This scenario was on display the other night at a presentation at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, a traditional major forum for world speakers.

The star dinner performer was a former London-based leader of the anti-Saddam Hussein exile movement. He is now — appropriately — Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations after serving as a member of the post-Saddam Governing Council. He is suave, smart and cool. His name is Samir Sumaidaie.

Ambassador Sumaidaie insists that the light at the end of the long Iraq tunnel is now in view: "I believe our own security has come of age. I believe we have turned the corner. We are not out of the woods yet, but we're beginning to be able to stand up on our own."

Sumaidaie is not exactly a puppet apologist for the policies of the two Bushes — Bush Sr. the former (and smarter) and his son Bush Jr. The former's "sanctions against Iraq were not a good idea. They hurt the Iraqis but not the regime." Then came junior's silly invasion: "It was not done very well," says the ambassador. "There were not enough U.S. troops. . . . Then thousands of Iraqi criminals were released, and there were weapons everywhere."

But several factors are beginning to turn the tide, he argues. First and foremost is the steadying effect of the resilience of the gritty Iraqi people. The country's "turbulent and dramatic history" has toughened the Iraqi hide and soul to a point that no one can eviscerate it. It is not for nothing, he reminds us, that within the genetic coding of Iraq lies what is historically called "the cradle of civilization."

It could be, too, that the Iraqi people as a whole are dog-tired of the shameful excesses and shenanigans of the terrorists, including al-Qaida. "The Iraqis are turning against them," he says. As the formerly fertile soil for the terrorists increasingly dried up, along came along U.S. Gen. David Petraeus to run the American operation.

It is the ambassador's view that unlike his predecessors, this American commanding officer knows exactly what he is doing, is getting it done, and will be heralded some day as the Dwight D. Eisenhower of the war. Petraeus replaced the misconceived "force protection" military strategy of holding onto patches of turf (the Iraqis, Sumaidaie jokes, referred to it as "false protection") with proactive counterinsurgency principles. Then, as a result of work with steadily stronger Iraqi forces, "a huge change has come about."

What do we make of this evidently sincere diplomat's hedged but unmistakable optimism?

For those of us old enough to recall the tragedy of the Vietnam War, we remember all too vividly how many times officials assured us of "light at the end of the tunnel" and indeed that even elusive total victory was at hand. Somehow, victory did elude us, the Vietnamese retained control of their country, and U.S. forces were unceremoniously withdrawn.

Here is another factor to consider. No matter how many battles U.S.-backed forces win, the war will probably not be won until the winner is widely viewed inside the country as Iraqis, rather than Americans. We have bombed, tortured, mis-jailed and otherwise militarily cremated enough Iraqis now (no one knows for sure how many) that unless the people in this "cradle of civilization" have the shortest memories and highest tolerance for mistakes and violence in the history of recorded time, there is no way Uncle Sam is going to be permitted to emerge as some affectionate and wise George Washington.

Even so, let us hope that the optimism of Sumaidaie replace the realisms on the ground. For the sooner Washington can more or less plausibly declare "victory" (whatever that means) and get the troops out of there, the better for the Iraqis. What's more, a sense that the tide might be turning in the Bush administration's favor eases pressure in Washington for U.S. military action against Iran.

By contrast, losing in Iraq would terrify the Bush people because that might suggest that in fact they are losers. But a perceptible uptick in their Iraqi fortunes may stay their hand so as to give them time to applaud themselves, while also pointing proudly to the apparent diplomatic settlement with North Korea. They should be happy to claim that neutralizing the threat of two of the three proclaimed members of the "axis of evil" isn't so bad after all.

Or so we would hope. I don't know about you, but the light I see at the end of the Iraq tunnel is anything but blinding.

Tom Plate is a syndicated columnist and member of the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations. © 2008 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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