Getting Back to Basics

After last week’s constitutional vote, what’s America’s primary mission in Iraq? The same as it’s been all along: to hunt down terrorists and insurgents, including both al-Qaeda forces and the Saddam Hussein loyalists who learned the wrong lesson when they were spared by American troops in 2003.

The chattering classes say that mission is not going well. Most Americans in uniform disagree. “I go up on the Hill and everybody’s wringing their hands and everybody’s worried,” said Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command. “But when I talk to my commanders in the field, when I talk to Iraqi commanders in the field, people are confident. … And I’d say we need to have confidence in the people that are fighting.”

This is not the kind of war the Pentagon ever wanted to fight _ a war in which stealth bombers and nuclear submarines play no role. Nevertheless, against a determined and ruthless enemy, Americans have lost not a single battle. More and more Iraqi troops are being trained and deployed. U.S. special forces and Marines have been doing what Americans do better than anyone else in the world: identify problems and devise creative solutions. Day by day, a military machine designed for the 20th Century is learning how to win post-modern conflicts.

Yes, almost 2,000 Americans have been killed and every one of those deaths is a heart-breaking tragedy. But that’s fewer Americans than were murdered by the enemy on a single sunny day in September four years ago. At this rate, it will take 200 years before as many Americans are killed in the world war against Islamist totalitarianism as were killed in the world war against German, Japanese and Italian totalitarianism.

America’s secondary mission also remains unchanged: to support those in Iraq and elsewhere who, like us, value freedom so much they are willing to risk their lives for it. Prior to 9/11, Washington had no interest in Arab and Muslim freedom fighters. Most Europeans still could not care less. (And even this administration can be stingy with its support. For example, so long as Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafy appears to be playing ball on geo-strategic issues, no serious pressure is being applied for the release from prison of such dissidents as Fathi Eljahmi.)

If democracy were easy to root in the soils of the Middle East there already would be many free nations in that region. Freedom House counts 119 electoral democracies around the world. But as Nina Shea, director of the organization’s Center for Religious Freedom recently observed, “not one is an Arab nation. Come December 15 when elections are to be held for a new government, Iraq will take another major step toward becoming the only one.”

The main reason many Sunnis oppose the draft constitution is fear its endorsement of federalism will lead Iraq to split apart _ a scenario that would leave them in a stump state with scarce resources. A hopeful paradox can be found in this: At some point, the Sunnis should come to recognize that continued violence can only result in the outcome they want to avoid.

Once they grasp that _ and assuming they have by then given up any lingering hope that suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices can restore them to power _ the rational decision will be to work out the best arrangements they can get with Iraq’s other key groups, the Shia (about 60 percent of the population) and the Kurds (about 20 percent).

Of course, all decisions are not rational decisions in the Middle East and elsewhere. And in the Middle East, as elsewhere, it is probably safer to bet that things will fall apart than that they will come together.

The Saddam-supporting insurgents and al-Qaeda are not yet defeated _ a vital objective in itself as well as a necessary condition for the evolution of freedom in Iraq and the region.

But last weekend millions of Iraqis _Shia, Kurd and Sunni, too _ risked their lives to put ballots in a box. They stood up for their rights and demonstrated that they have by no means given up on their future. It is far too soon for anyone who values freedom to give up on them.

(Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.)