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September, do you know where your quagmire is?

By Jackson Murphy
web posted September 1, 2003

As September hits, critics of President Bush and his foreign policy are drumming up a familiar theme. On Sunday pundits and experts were mentioning the key talking points in the Iraq debate as it stands now: more troops, more United Nations, and of course the invocation of the word, quagmire. All the while the situation is proclaimed the biggest problem in U.S. foreign policy since Vietnam.

Vehicles burn at the blast site, outside the Shrine of Imam Ali, one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines in the central city of Najaf, 180 km south of Baghdad. A car bomb killed at least 82 people, including Iraq's top Shiite political leader Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim
Vehicles burn at the blast site, outside the Shrine of Imam Ali, one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines in the central city of Najaf, 180 km south of Baghdad. A car bomb killed at least 82 people, including Iraq's top Shiite political leader Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim

Karl Rove has got to be "nervous" adds Maureen Dowd. Others have referred to Iraq as simply, ‘quicksand,' and suggest America is going to continue to sink into the sand. As the death toll mounts in Iraq, especially with the development of attacks on soft targets such as the U.N. building, and last week's car bomb in Najaf, critics are having a field day with every nuance and every failure in the American plan to rebuild Iraq.

Despite the recent and ongoing attacks, the situation isn't as bad as newspapers would make you believe. By the sounds of it, the country is getting safer by the day, commerce is coming back, and services and life continue to return to normal. Not that you would know it.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is another such critic. "Our Iraq strategy needs an emergency policy lobotomy. President Bush needs to shift to a more U.N.-friendly approach, with more emphasis on the Iraqi Army (the only force that can effectively protect religious sites in Iraq and separate the parties), and with more input from Secretary of State Colin Powell and less from the ‘we know everything and everyone else is stupid' civilian team running the Pentagon."

This situation has become tough, or at least more visibly tough, not because things are going badly, but more likely since the whole plan has worked far better than anyone could have imagined. It's worked so well that the prospects of a free Iraq are bringing terrorists not only out of their shells but out of their caves. As Austin Bay tells it, "Iraq's success has frightened autocrats throughout the Middle East. Autocrats in Taliban caves, in Iran, in Syria, fear Iraqi democracy. Coalition success in Iraq is forcing the House of Saud to choose between democratic evolution and fatal revolution."

There is no doubt that it has made the immediate situation in Iraq more dangerous than anyone would wish. But that doesn't mean that the situation is unfixable, and it certainly doesn't mean, as Friedman suggests, that the situation needs the U.N. Even he freely admits that finding other partners willing to throw their troops into harms way is going to be tough. He is on more solid ground when he suggests that this may need more Iraqi help.

Bernard Lewis agrees comparing the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq. "America's enemies are the same in both places, with the same objectives. The main difference is that in Afghanistan there is an Afghan government, while in Iraq there is an American administration, and the cry of "American imperialism" is being repeated on many sides. Even the most cursory examination will reveal that this charge is ludicrously inept. America has neither the desire nor the skill nor--perhaps most important--the need to play an imperial role in Iraq."

The stakes are of such importance that while we may be desperate for more troops we can't just take more international troops just for the sake of it. If it is true, as The Weekly Standard suggests, that it is, "painfully obvious that there are too few American troops operating in Iraq. Senior military officials privately suggest that we need two more divisions. The simple fact is, right now there are too few good guys chasing the bad guys--hence the continuing sabotage. There are too few forces to patrol the Syrian and Iranian borders to prevent the infiltration of international terrorists trying to open a new front against the United States in Iraq."

If we need more troops, then we need more troops, but the last thing we need is more from other nations; nations that may have been against this action in the first place, or under U.N. control. And it will not pacify the terrorists who want not only America out, but tyranny back in. What is more important is getting Iraqis increasingly involved.

The situation in Iraq may look like quicksand for America, but it may be more correct to say that it looks increasingly like flypaper for the coalition of terrorists that have thrived for too long in a broken Middle East. The balance is to figure out how to leverage the flypaper to ensure democracy and peace take root.

Jackson Murphy is a commentator from Vancouver, Canada. He a senior writer at Enter Stage Right and the editor of "Dispatches" a website that serves up political commentary 24-7. You can contact him at jacksonmurphy@telus.net.

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