Postcards from Saigon

October 28, 2006

Column One:



Apropos of nothing, Wednesday night Channel 2 news broadcast a jihadi snuff film. The video, produced by an Iraqi group called the Islamic Army of Allah, shows a jihadi sniper knocking off American soldiers one by one.

Being a propaganda flick whose goal is to demoralize Americans and their allies and recruit new soldiers to the army of jihad, not surprisingly the video doesn’t show how the US forces reacted to the sniper fire. The American forces in the film are powerless victims. If they are smart, they will cut and run before it is too late.

The video is effective because it effectively tells a complete lie. US forces in Iraq are far from helpless. They have won nearly every engagement they have fought with insurgent forces in Iraq. And their capabilities get better all the time.

Today, the public debate in the US revolves around one question: When are we leaving Iraq? The conventional wisdom has become that US operations in Iraq are futile. Due in large part to politically driven press coverage, Americans have received the impression that the US cannot succeed in Iraq and that consequently, their leaders ought to be concentrating their efforts on building an exit strategy. Comparisons between the war in Iraq and the Vietnam War are legion.

Last Wednesday, President George W. Bush was asked whether it is possible to make a comparison between the recent sharp rise in violence in Iraq and the Tet offensive in Vietnam in January 1968. Bush responded by noting that then as now, “There’s certainly a stepped-up level of violence, and we’re heading into an election.”

During the Tet offensive, the North Vietnamese attacked 40 South Vietnamese villages simultaneously with a massive force of 84,000 troops. The offensive failed utterly. 45,000 North Vietnamese soldiers were killed, no ground was taken. Yet, when then US president Lyndon Johnson declared victory, the American people didn’t believe him.

Walter Cronkite, the all-powerful anchorman of the CBS Evening News had told them that the US had lost the offensive. Who was the president to argue with Cronkite? In March 1968 Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection.

So when the media wonder if one can compare the battles in Iraq today to the Tet offensive, what they really want to know is if they have successfully convinced the American public that its military has lost the war in Iraq.

Over the past several weeks, Bush has been waging a political offensive to convince the public that their military is winning the war in Iraq. On Wednesday, the president gave a press conference on Iraq and later reinforced his message in a meeting with conservative columnists.

Bush made four major points in those appearances. First, he explained that the US is at war and described the nature of the war. Iran, he said stands at the helm of enemy forces. Iran’s senior role was made clear he said, through its sponsorship of this summer’s Hizbullah and Palestinian war against Israel. One of Iran’s central goals – shared with Syria and its terrorist proxies – is to destroy the forces of moderation and democracy in the Middle East.

Secondly, Bush asserted that Iraq is a vital front in this war. In his view, the only way the US can lose that war is if it leaves, “letting things fall into chaos and letting al-Qaida have a safe haven.” Bush argued that if the US leaves Iraq, Iraq will come to the US, to Iraq’s neighbors and indeed to the entire world.

Thirdly, Bush argued that the US can only win the war if the American public supports it. The only way to ensure the public’s support is by showing that America is winning. Bush said that showing success is difficult because while its benchmarks for victory – political freedom, economic development and social progress – are amorphous, “the enemy gets to define victory by killing people.”

Finally, Bush argued that to defeat Iran, Syria and North Korea, the US must have international support for its efforts. Countries like Russia, China and France must understand the dangers and agree to isolate these regimes with effective international sanctions.

WHILE BUSH clearly knows what he wants to do, he is hard-pressed to succeed. Not only are the Democrats and the media trying to undercut him, members of his own administration – and particularly Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her colleagues at the State Department – are subverting the president’s agenda.

For example, there is Alberto Fernandez, the Director of Public Diplomacy in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. Fernandez’s job is to defend the US in the Arabic media. Yet, in an interview with Al Jazeera last week, Fernandez said that the US had been “arrogant” and “stupid” in Iraq. In September he reportedly said that Americans and others “are trying intentionally to encourage hell in the Arab world.”

Then there is Rice herself. Rather than promoting US victories in Iraq, Rice is turning the Iraqi government into a scapegoat for the ongoing jihad. If the government doesn’t get its act together, she intimates, the US will feel free to wash its hands of the matter. It won’t be a US defeat, but an Iraqi failure. That is, far from extolling American success, she is paving the way to justify an American defeat.

At the same time, rather than explain Iran’s central role in the war, Rice courts the mullahs. Ignoring Iran’s sponsorship of the Palestinians, Rice waxes poetic comparing the Palestinians – who chose Hamas to lead them – to the American founding fathers and to the civil rights movement.

On Wednesday Bush explained that the relative level of violence is not a determinate of victory or defeat because the enemy can use cease-fires to rearm. In his words, “If the absence of violence is victory, no one will ever win, because all that means is you’ve empowered a bunch of suiciders and thugs to kill.”

Yet contrary to Bush’s clear view on the matter, State Department officials work around the clock negotiating cease-fires. Indeed, one of the capstones of Rice’s diplomatic efforts is the August cease-fire in Lebanon under which Israel is prevented from defending itself and Hizbullah is moving swiftly to rebuild its forces.

In Iraq, this dangerous penchant for negotiations is what enabled Muqtada al-Sadr’s pro-Iranian, pro-Hizbullah Mahdi Army to emerge from its April 2004 offensive against Coalition forces intact and free to become the power broker in Shii’te politics that it is today. The fact that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki felt it necessary to condemn the joint US-Iraqi attack against al-Sadr’s forces in Baghdad Tuesday is a testament to al-Sadr’s power.

Today the only high-level US diplomat who believes that the purpose of diplomacy is to advance US national interests and not to achieve agreements for their own sake is US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton. Just this week Bolton effectively prevented Venezuela from being elected to the Security Council.

Rice does not support Bolton. According to Senate sources, Rice played a major role in preventing Bolton from receiving Senate confirmation for his appointment. As a result, he will likely be forced to leave the UN next month.

Rice’s machinations have made her popular with the media. But her popularity comes at the expense of public and international support for the US’s war goals. Her actions and those of her State Department colleagues have contributed to the anomalous situation where while US forces improved their capabilities in Iraq, the American public became convinced that the war is going badly.
Rather than fearing the US, Iran, Syria and North Korea behave as though the US is a paper tiger. Rather than support America, European “allies” increasingly see their national interests best served by distancing themselves from the US as much as possible.

THE SITUATION can be reversed. The media are no longer the power they were in Cronkite’s day. Were the administration to challenge the networks, the networks would be forced to adjust their coverage to reality.

Last week CNN broadcast the Iraqi sniper video.

The Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman Duncan Hunter reacted by blasting the broadcast and calling for the military to bar CNN reporters from embedding with US forces in Iraq. Hunter said that by showing the film CNN was collaborating with America’s enemies and consequently, CNN reporters should enjoy no support from US forces in Iraq. His attacks were widely reported and there can be little doubt that CNN will think long and hard before broadcasting another enemy propaganda movie.

For Israel, the results of the American debate over the future of the war in Iraq are of critical importance. A US retreat will place Israel in grave danger. The eastern front, whose demise the military “experts” were quick to announce in 2003 to justify slashing the defense budget, will make a comeback – replete with massive quantities of arms and tens of thousands of trained jihadi soldiers who will believe that they just won their jihad against the US. Moreover, if the US retreats, the IDF will find itself facing a US-armed and trained Shi’ite army. That is, if the US withdraws, Israel could potentially find itself facing an enemy force better trained and equipped than the IDF.

The leaders of the Democratic Party today compete amongst themselves to see who can be more defeatist. If in the November 7 elections the Democrats take control of both houses of Congress, or even just one of them, the push for a US retreat will grow stronger.

Whatever the results of the elections, Israel must hope that for his last two years in office, President Bush will take firm control of his administration – first and foremost by curbing Rice and her State Department associates – and lead a concerted, unabashed diplomatic and public opinion offensive.

If Bush does this, he will gain wide public support and sufficient support from the international community to move ahead in the war.

If Bush does not take control of his administration, the Vietnam War analogy will become an accurate one for Iraq, and Israel will find itself playing the role of Cambodia.

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