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Stop Talking

Most of the time in war, diplomatic machinations don't create enduring realities--events on the battlefield do. After World War I, the defeated, but not humiliated, German army that surrendered in France and Belgium provided the origins for the "stab in the back" mythology that fueled Hitler's rise to power. After World War II, by contrast, the shattered and shamed Wehrmacht in Berlin was unable to energize a Fourth Reich. George S. Patton, snarling to head for Berlin and beyond in 1945, grasped the importance of "the unforgiving minute," when military audacity can establish a fait accompli on the ground that diplomats quibble over for decades. His unfulfilled wish to take Prague meant a blank check for a late-arriving Red Army that would help ensure a half-century of totalitarianism in Eastern Europe.

The labyrinth of failed plans and bad-faith deals in the Balkans led nowhere until the U.S. Air Force secured in 79 days in 1999 the capitulation of Slobodan Milosevic--the chief foreign policy achievement of the Clinton administration. Suicide bombing failed to bring Yasir Arafat what he could not obtain at Camp David only because of the skill and ingenuity of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which--through a multifaceted strategy of border fortification, proactive attacks, targeted air assassinations, and increased intelligence and vigilance--drastically curtailed the efficacy of the tactic. Arafat today is a marginalized figure not because of a belated European perception that he is corrupt and murderous, but because he was first reduced to a humiliated lord of a rubble pile--thanks to the IDF.

In our current postmodern world, we tend to deprecate the efficacy of arms, trusting instead that wise and reasonable people can adjudicate the situation on the ground according to Enlightenment principles of diplomacy and reason. But thugs like Moqtada Al Sadr's Mahdi Army and Saddam Hussein's remnant killers beg to differ. They may eventually submit to a fair and honest brokered peace--but only when the alternative is an Abrams tank or Cobra gunship, rather than a stern rebuke from L. Paul Bremer. More important, neutrals and well- meaning moderates in Iraq often put their ideological preferences on hold as they wait to see who will, in fact, win. The promise of consensual government, gender equality, and the rule of law may indeed save the Iraqi people and improve our own security--but only when those who wish none of it learn that trying to stop it will get them killed.

A year ago, we waged a brilliant three-week campaign, then mysteriously forgot the source of our success. Military audacity, lethality, unpredictability, imperviousness to cheap criticism, and iron resolve, coupled with the message of freedom, convinced neutrals to join us and enemies not yet conquered to remain in the shadows. But our failure to shoot looters, to arrest early insurrectionists like Sadr, and to subdue cities like Tikrit or Falluja only earned us contempt--and not just from those who would kill us, but from others who would have joined us as well.

The misplaced restraint of the past year is not true morality, but a sort of weird immorality that seeks to avoid ethical censure in the short term--the ever-present, 24-hour pulpit of global television that inflates a half-dozen inadvertent civilian casualties into Dresden and Hiroshima. But, in the long term, such complacency has left more moderate Iraqis to be targeted by ever more emboldened murderers. For their part, American troops have discovered that they are safer on the assault when they can fire first and kill killers, rather than simply patrol and react, hoping their newly armored Humvees and fortified flak vests will deflect projectiles.

This is the context for the current insistence on more troops. America's failure to promptly retake Falluja or rid Najaf of militiamen demands more soldiers to garrison the ever more Fallujas and Najafs that will now surely arise. In contrast, audacity is a force multiplier. A Sadr in chains or in paradise is worth more, in terms of deterrence, than an entire infantry division.

There are other advantages to a force of some 138,000 rapidly responding soldiers, rather than 200,000 or so garrison troops. The more American troops, the less likely it is Iraqis will feel any obligation to step up to the responsibilities of their own defense. The more troops, the more psychological reliance on numbers than on performance of individual units. And, the more troops, the higher the profile of culturally bothersome Americans who disturb by their mere omnipresence, rather than win respect for their proven skill in arms.

On Monday evening, the president outlined a sober, workable, step-by-step transition plan from the appointment of constitutional framers to representative delegates and on to direct democracy, which, like it or not, will at long last put a much-needed Iraqi face on both political and military operations. The long-term trends offer hope--whether we look at heightened petroleum revenue from increased pumping and prices to the influx of U.S. aid and the resurrection of the Iraqi infrastructure. But these trends won't endure unless our youth bring to bear the full force of U.S. military might that credits the Iraqis for their success in putting down the opponents of their own newly created society.

This formula does not require more American soldiers. It requires the increasing use of admittedly unreliable Iraqi troops made more reliable by the massive use of U.S. tanks, airpower, and artillery. The former will grow in confidence, as did the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, when they grasp that real force is on their side and that their enemies have no commensurate recourse to air strikes, armor, and heavy artillery--much less billions of dollars in aid. In other words, we can accomplish two seemingly mutually exclusive goals--more security and less of an American profile--but only by using the force we have to punish the enemy on every single occasion it attacks, starting immediately.

Practically, a new aggressiveness means greater use of Special Forces, Rangers, elite airborne units, and Marines to spearhead retaliatory raids in conjunction with Iraqi forces. Conventional and purely American units should form strategic reserves out of sight that can arrive in overwhelming force to surround recalcitrant cities should our Iraqi-American forces face problems-- and they will, at first. Clear success in Falluja--defined not just by apparent tranquility, but the absence of arms caches, nocturnal assassins, and organized gangs of Baathists using homes and businesses to foment insurrection--will undermine Sadr's militias, embolden democracy-minded moderates, and frighten Iran and Syria into curbing their mischief. Iran will talk to us soon enough about behavior that promotes stability rather than terrorism--but only when they have real reason to fear U.S. success in Iraq. A consensual Iraq, then, even in the broadest sense, is a de facto revolutionary force in the region, whose daily televised parliamentary proceedings, free and open presses, economic transparency, and vibrant popular culture offer an alternative paradigm to the same old tired Middle East dichotomy between the Islamic fundamentalism of the masses and the fascist autocracy of the elite.

By contrast, hesitation and uncertainty would propel the sequence of events into reverse. If the humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 helped create the landscape for the boat-people, reeducation camps, the Cambodian holocaust, the takeover of the Tehran Embassy, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Russian-sponsored insurrection in Central America, and a decade-long demoralization at home, so, in the same way, our momentum thus far has curtailed the Libyan weapons program, brought revelations of nuclear mischief from Dr. A.Q. Khan, and put Iran and Syria under scrutiny--a volcanic, not a static, situation that can as easily deteriorate as improve. The hard truth is that grand diplomacy and geopolitical calculus depend on the lethality of a few thousand American fighters in the streets of Karbala, Kufa, and Najaf. The more lethal they are today, the safer Iraqis and Americans will be in the years to come.

This article originally ran in the June 7, 2004, issue of the magazine.