WASHINGTON -- We had two political objectives in going into Iraq: deposing Saddam and replacing his regime with a democratic government unthreatening to the region and strategically friendly to the United States. The first objective proved far more easy to achieve than anticipated. The second has proved far more difficult than anticipated.
The most serious misconception had nothing to do with troop levels or whether to disband an army that had already disbanded itself. It had to do with gauging Sunni intentions. Decades of iron rule over the Shiites and Kurds had left the Sunnis militantly unreconciled to any other political order.
Moreover, the melting away of the Baathist regime from Baghdad gave the Sunni resistance weaponry, discipline and organizational know-how of a high order -- far higher, for example, than the Shiites and Kurds were able to muster a decade earlier when they rose up against Saddam's regime only to be crushed.
Perhaps the current Sunni insurgency could have been defeated by an overwhelming display of American force with a huge number of troops and a scorched-earth counterinsurgency. But that could well have resulted in a Pyrrhic and very temporary victory, increasing Sunni bitterness and resistance that would inevitably return as we drew down our forces. After all, we were never going to keep a huge land army in the desert forever.
For better or worse, we chose occupation lite. The insurgency continues, and it is not going to be defeated militarily. But that does not mean we lose. Insurgencies can be undone by co-optation. And that is precisely the strategy of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Given that his life is literally on the line in making such judgments, one should give his view some weight.
He intends to wean away elements of the insurgency by giving them a stake in the new Iraqi order. These Sunni elements -- unreconciled tribal leaders and guerrilla factions -- may well decide that with neither side having very good prospects of complete victory, accepting a place and some power in the new Iraq is a better alternative than perpetual war.
The Bush administration is firmly behind this policy. And who is sniping at it from the sidelines? Democratic senators, fresh from having voted for troop withdrawal rather than victory as our objective in Iraq, led the charge to denounce any sort of amnesty for insurgents who had killed Americans.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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