As the American economy begins to unfurl quite positive numbers, the situation in Iraq--altered by a new aggressiveness in our counter--insurgency military tactics, is also changing for the better. Opponents of President Bush must be having a cow as these harbingers of his re-election develop.
In passing, a firestorm of whining has been unleashed from the anti-Bush, anti-U.S. opponents of our Iraq involvement after the Department of Defense decided Monday, December 9, to exclude non-supportive nations from sharing in the U.S. taxpayer funded $19 billion Iraq reconstruction contract bidding. As one might expect, the usual suspects are exhorting the president to reverse the ''destructive'' ruling of the procuring agency, the Pentagon. God forbid that we insult our friends--like the French!
As this dramatic news broke, a more significant process reflecting a subtly changed policy was already ongoing in Iraq. The United States, perhaps a tad belatedly, is necessarily getting much tougher there. We are at last behaving like the guys who won the war, and not like an apologetic cop who doesn't want to hurt the feelings of the criminals he must apprehend. Before this turn of events, the Iraqis seem to have exploited royally what they interpreted as U.S. weakness. They behaved arrogantly and disrespectfully much too often towards our leadership there.
The toll of American lives lost in recent months had been rising even as Iraqi/foreign Islamic insurgency increased. Now we have taken strong and, at times, harsh measures to regain the initiative in bringing about adequate overall security and safety for Coalition personnel. We will hear more squeals of discomfort in the future from Iraqis and Iraqi-supportive bleats from the peaceniks at home about this turn of events but American and Coalition lives will be saved and we will eventually see relative calm return to Iraq.
Too many critics at home and some Iraqis forget that an armed coalition of the United States and its allies won a mighty victory in Iraq this past spring, defeating Saddam Hussein's armed forces, estimated before the hostilities to total in the hundreds of thousands of men. Coalition fighting forces--mostly American and led by Americans--achieved this miraculous near-wipeout of a formidable enemy, literally in a matter of days.
There was a companion miracle to the swift victory, mostly ignored or cynically rejected by U.S. and foreign opponents of our being in Iraq. Collateral Iraqi civilian deaths and indeed, combat American casualties, were--thanks to careful U.S. planning and special strategies--kept mercifully low. [More Americans died in auto accidents (531), just in California, over the 2003 Thanksgiving holidays than have died in Iraq since April 1 from combat (312) and accidental (145) causes combined!]
Yet, to many Americans, perhaps the most infuriating aspect of our presence in Iraq is the seeming ingratitude of the Iraqis themselves for what we have done, are doing, and plan to do for them. Their liberation after 35 years from the monstrous and genocidal Saddam and his brutal, murderous lackeys has not yet stilled their grousing or stopped their demands on American efforts or behavior.
My theory is that we may unwittingly encourage Iraqi complaints by trying to appease them. Worse, we may have pandered at times to a negatively reporting media that is against our presence in Iraq and sympathetic to any who make our life harder there.
Also, there are strong indicators--literary and historical--that the Middle Eastern mentality may respond best to overwhelming strength and force rather than excessive flexibility in adversaries. Observed or perceived weakness in an ''adversary'' is often seen as an invitation to take advantage until resistance is met. Iraqi behavior since we got there seems to bear this theory out, especially if one ''reads'' translated Arab media and their commentary on our effort in Iraq. Americans may have been too nice.
Change has also occurred concerning who runs our Iraq military operations. General Ricardo Sanchez is now the supreme U.S. military boss in Iraq. He may be representative of our new toughness in Iraq.
This latest figure impacting Iraqi life, with an outstanding and broadly experienced military career, including service in the Gulf War, is from Texas, home state of his commander-in-chief. Sanchez's career history would indicate that he is a no-nonsense, fast-rising guy who may cause even more discomfort than ever for Iraqis who won't play ball with mutual U.S./Iraqi goals. Our military who now run things will require that Iraqis do things they may not like and comply with certain controls (1) to insure the safety of our people and (2) to facilitate our job assignment in Iraq.
Some months ago, General Sanchez assessed what had been an accelerating series of daily attacks on American troops. He moved quickly to reverse that trend by using some new and tougher tactics. Foremost among these is the broad and sweeping use of American raids on Iraqi targets with suspected insurgent presence. Entire suspect neighborhoods are hit at night, house to house, all the time searching for weapons and rousting out the bad guys. Buildings suspected of use by insurgents are destroyed. Even relatives of suspected insurgent leaders are arrested in efforts to discover the location of the sought-after individuals who supervise attacks on our troops or Coalition facilities and people.
In support of these operations, there has been a greatly increased emphasis on beefing up intelligence to guide and improve the effectiveness of our attacks. The amazingly fast-growing and significant Iraqi-manned security apparatus is now better equipped to help in this intelligence gathering business.
We also seem to be doing some pre-emptive shooting at suspicious vehicles around our facilities and we are killing some car bombers before they do major damage, a risk of inadvertent civilian deaths notwithstanding. Military convoys are now escorted by Bradleys and tanks capable of overkill on any thing the ''rebels'' can mount against our troops, as happened in Samarra recently. We also are now publicizing Iraqi rebel casualty counts so that the consequences of taking us on are better understood by the enemy.
In another example, U.S. forces are now surrounding some target villages (Abu Ishma is one reported last week in the New York Times) with razor barbed-wire and restricting movement of residents in and out of town only through display of picture ID cards and within curfews.
Among presumably non-combative Iraqis in Abu Ishma, that kind of ''toughness'' is reportedly causing vehement Iraqi criticism of the American forces. Outside this village an Iraqi allegedly told a New York Times reporter: ''I see no difference between us and the Palestinians. We didn't expect anything like this after Saddam fell.'' The Times story does not identify the Iraqi.
Which introduces an interesting question. Is the real extent of Iraqi discontent with our presence as reflected in ''direct'' quotes reported by U.S. print and TV people really accurate or could the reporters be ''helping'' the image? So many times when we read a supposed quote from an Iraqi we seem to get an allusion to us as ''occupiers'' or hear an allegation of GI's abusing civilians.
After our four-hour firefight and counterattack in Samarra a few days ago which killed dozens of the enemy, an Iraqi was shown on CNN pointing to his destroyed living room and saying ''what a terrible thing this attack on civilians has been.'' Another anonymous villager from barb-wired Abu Ishma was also quoted by the New York Times reporter as saying, ''we can't even go to our mosque regularly because of the Americans.''
And who can forget the disgusting display in early December of Iraqi teenagers jumping on and reported as disfiguring the bodies of two American soldiers killed by a roadside attack on their Humvee. A similar outrage was reported as perpetrated on the corpses of the Spanish military ambushed by insurgents a couple of weeks ago. Who took the photos of these Iraqi youths rifling the wreckage which we saw on the front pages of the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times? Were any of the photographers American journalists who could have helped us identify and punish these young animals?
Now let us go back to last April when we were allegedly ''responsible'' for the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad. Peter Jennings' ABC and CNN had us all but placing Mesopotamian treasures in GI dufflebags! And of course there was also, in those early days, pervasive looting of stores and even hospitals by Iraqis. Yet our GI's took the media rap for not guarding Sumerian dieties or office furniture or medicine and bandages instead of protecting themselves and pursuing the enemy!
And just a couple of days ago, Iraqis were shown on cable news lined up by their autos waiting to get gasoline. One was reported to have said (in English voice-over) that ''This never happened as bad under Saddam.'' Countless similar quotes of ''better days under Saddam'' were reported in the worst days of power shortages in Iraq, especially in Baghdad where American reporters prefer to stay.
So are all these Iraqi comments and complaints against their ''occupiers'' accurately reflected by these journalists or their Iraqi translators? ?Quien sabe!
Summarizing, it seems that we will be more aggressive in taking guerrilla battles to the guerrillas and perhaps ignoring petty Iraqi complaints with little basis. A very big question emerges. Does our job involve any priority to satisfy Iraqi whining or to respond to their disrespectful demands and do we care PR-wise? Do we dare take repressive steps against excessive Iraqi flaunting of our rightful authority, an authority gained with American blood? (Like the arrogant Shiite clerics leading demonstrators in anti-U.S. chants on Baghdad streets while demanding immediate popular elections.)
And how responsive must we be to Iraqi concerns as reported by the press? Do we ignore the possibility that perhaps they are really American or foreign media-inspired? Could we be, at times, letting reports in the New York Times or CNN or the like about conditions on the ground in Iraq affect our policies there?
There is only one overall answer. General Sanchez has the right strategy. First, continue to kill or disable the insurgent enemy ASAP by any means or tactics available. Seek out enemies and weapons wherever they are, within the Iraqi populace in private homes, stores or elsewhere.
These insurgents, Iraqi or Al Queda or Syrian or whatever will kill our people if we don't capture them or kill them first. And they are exploiting the complex urban environment to operate from. Thus as we strike their suspected lairs, the comfort or ''rights'' of the Iraqi civilian populace is secondary to the safety of our troops--no matter the PR or press impact.
Whether we are liked or hated in or outside Iraq must be irrelevant to achieving our task. We will not win anyone's ''liking'' by pandering; we will only get respect and build strong relations with current and even some alienated ''allies'' by honesty, competence and real progress in our job of maintaining security, rebuilding and democratizing.
And in the long run, dealing with the Iraqis through demonstrated strength and resolve and, yes, toughness, will be more effective in winning their cooperation and respect than any other strategy. The smart ones among them will know that they are the eventual winners if they cooperate. But we win, too. Go, Sanchez!
Fernando Oaxaca is a longtime conservative and community activist based in Los Angeles. He receives e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.