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On Point

James Baker and the Desert Storm Legacy


by Austin Bay
November 15, 2006

Iraqis haven't forgotten the aftermath of Desert Storm. With Saddam's troops forced to retreat from Kuwait, Shia Arabs throughout southern Iraq rose up against Saddam's tyranny. Kurds in the north also rebelled. Many Sunnis in Baghdad anticipated the end of Saddam's "Tikiriti" despotism. Numerous Iraqis tell me post-Desert Storm they anticipated liberation. Instead, they got a dose of so-called Realpolitik -- mass murder and a return to dictatorship.

In 1991, Saddam did not fall. His Republican Guards attacked the Shia towns and massacred their inhabitants. At least 50,000 Iraqis were murdered by Saddam's defeated army.

In April 2003, America toppled Saddam. This aftermath promised something better than tyranny and mass murder. Still, many Iraqis doubted America's commitment to sticking with them through the trials of escaping a terrible past and building a better future. Pundits can point to Vietnam and Somalia as American bug-outs (al-Qaeda alludes to both), but the failure to act after Desert Storm -- the failure to act in the face of mass murder -- is by far the most pertinent to Iraqis.

An Iraqi cultural adviser I worked with in 2004 insisted Iraqi doubts about long-haul American commitment were an immense political problem. He was a Shia, and he himself vacillated between pessimism and optimism. During one late-night discussion (we were standing in front of a shower-trailer), the personal anguish of 1991 was particularly evident. But he was upbeat the day he returned from a week-long visit with his brother in southern Iraq. "They think you (America) may stay this time," he told me.

What the translator meant was "stay long enough." America never intended to stay. America's post-9/11 strategy has been to help foster nation-states where the consent of the governed creates legitimacy and where terrorists are prosecuted, not promoted.

In an essay I wrote for the Dec. 9, 2002, issue of The Weekly Standard, I outlined the rough path to that "end state" in Iraq:

"Pity Gen. Tommy Franks or, for that matter, any American military commander tasked with overseeing a post-Saddam Baghdad. For in that amorphous, dicey phase the Pentagon calls 'war termination' ... U.S. and allied forces liberating Iraq will attempt -- more or less simultaneously -- to end combat operations, cork public passions, disarm Iraqi battalions, bury the dead, generate electricity, pump potable water, bring law out of embittering lawlessness, empty jails of political prisoners, pack jails with criminals, turn armed partisans into peaceful citizens, re-arm local cops who were once enemy infantry, shoot terrorists, thwart chiselers, carpetbaggers and black-marketeers, fix sewers, feed refugees, patch potholes and get trash trucks rolling, and accomplish all this under the lidless gaze of Peter Jennings and Al-Jazeera."

In summer 2003, Paul Bremer and his Coalition Provisional Authority weren't prepared to handle the situation that marathon sentence describes. However, by mid-2004 the U.S. military had hammered out a sound security and recovery plan. The campaign plan met guidelines promulgated in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1546. This resolution is no top-secret document -- it's on the U.N. website.

"Phased withdrawal" of coalition forces has always been the goal. The issue is a realistic "when."

The Iraqi government confronts extraordinary challenges. Are there rotten Iraqi military units? Yes -- but there are also some very good ones. Do Iran and Syria support terrorists and militias? Yes. The dictators want the world to conclude that democracy is culturally and politically alien to the Middle East. They want the world to conclude, like British and French imperialists did in 1919, that Arabs can't handle democracy.

But despite the public stumbles and bloody learning curve, Maliki's government says otherwise.

Enter the James Baker and Lee Hamilton-led Iraq Study Group (ISG). It's my bet that it will produce nothing original in terms of strategic and operational thinking. It may well produce a set of policy recommendations palatable to Democrats and Republicans -- in other words, consensus political cover that allows the sober and wise to continue to support Iraq's war for freedom and modernity.

James Baker was secretary of state in 1991, when the Iraqi people were consigned to the depredations of their tyrant. Baker needs to remember that, if he -- an old master of Realpolitik -- counsels a policy that leads to anything less than victory.

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