Are we tough enough?

Posted: Apr 09, 2004 12:00 AM

As American and coalition soldiers are fired upon in Iraq, we may be seeing the radiating ripples of the Spanish election. If terror can succeed in Madrid, why not in Fallujah and Basra and Ramadi?

 Iraq is obviously not among the more civilized nations on earth. Saddam's barbarism was extreme, but it and he arose from a culture of terror and fear. One can imagine Saddam watching TV in his jail cell and chortling over the mutilated bodies of our aid workers in Fallujah. "Now maybe you Americans see why I ruled with an iron fist?"

 Of course, in truth, Saddam's rule only further brutalized a people already accustomed to tyranny.

 President Bush has been forceful in his commitment to democratizing the Middle East. What remains up for debate is how long it will take before Iraq is ready for free elections. A simple respect for the rule of law must precede self-government. Among the fractious, suspicious, violent and emotional Iraqi people, such respect has not been much in evidence yet.

 Rumors, for example, are Iraq's principle communications media. Among the legends that have circulated widely in the past year, reports Tom Squitieri of USA Today, include: 1) that toys distributed by U.S. soldiers to Iraqi children cause deadly diseases; 2) that Saddam is in a Colorado ski resort; 3) that the United States is holding back electricity to punish the Iraqi people; 4) that Israel is behind the U.S. invasion; and 5) that night vision goggles permit U.S. soldiers to see through the clothing of Iraqi women.

 The U.S.-led coalition has already accomplished an enormous amount, including introducing a new currency, reopening schools (with revised textbooks), re-establishing power grids, arranging for adequate water supplies, presiding over the opening of more than 100 newspapers and numerous radio and television stations, helping to establish democratically elected local councils, training new police and a professional and non-terrorist army, and more. The task we have set ourselves is Herculean. And most Americans do not speak the language.

 But the question of the moment is not whether we've done enough good, but whether we've been tough enough. We Americans hate being occupiers. We are liberators. But Iraq cannot be truly liberated until it has been transformed. And it cannot be transformed if the bad elements are not afraid of American soldiers. Those gleeful faces in Fallujah make the point: They think we are patsies.

 Are we? Moqtada al-Sadr, the 30-ish cleric who only now has been issued an arrest warrant for a murder committed (supposedly on his order) a year ago, has been handled with kid gloves until now. His newspaper has printed the vilest incitement, accusing the United States for example, of using an Apache helicopter to bomb 50 police recruits on Feb. 10 in front of an Iraqi police station. In truth, the attack was actually the work of terrorists.

 Why would the U.S. bomb Iraqis attempting to cooperate with the coalition in building a new police force? It doesn't matter that it defies common sense. The rumor mill churns on. Al-Sadr has used his newspaper, Al Hawza, to urge "terrorism" against American forces. And what has been the result? Several stern warnings. Only when Sadr's "Mahdi Army," a mob of criminals, former Baathists (ironic since Saddam executed Sadr's father) and Islamists, began firing at Americans did the civil administrator shut Al Hawza down.

 Perhaps they stayed their hand because they knew closing a newspaper would provoke criticism stateside. And it did. Editorials across the nation, from The New York Times to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, to the Detroit News to The San Francisco Chronicle scolded the administration for hypocrisy.

 "Shutting down a newspaper," explained the Hartford Courant's editorial, "even an anti-American publication, doesn't teach democracy."

 Well, hold on a minute. Baghdad is not Boston. You can't teach democracy until you first have order. And you cannot have order if people like Al-Sadr think they can bully you.

 Why did we let ourselves in for all of this? As James Burnham used to say, "Where there's no alternative, there's no problem." The work of transforming the Middle East is going to be messy and difficult. But there is no alternative. To permit the region to simmer in ignorance, tyranny and fantasies of revenge is to incubate terrorism.