To win the war in Iraq, President Bush needs two mandates. He claims both. Neither exists. And because neither exists, he cannot win the war in Iraq.
The lesser mandate, that of the American people, cannot be inferred from an election in which the fundamental choice was between the man whose chief virtue was that he was not Mr. Bush and the man whose chief virtue was that he was not John Kerry. Whatever mandate there may be will last only until the bills come due. They'll be coming due soon enough. The money, the horrors and the issue that just won't go away: conscription.
Nor can the greater mandate, that of the Iraqi people, be inferred, no matter how ardently the administration wishes it to be so. Opinion polls and anecdotes mean nothing here. Neither will elections. The one thing that would prove an Iraqi commitment to freedom is the one thing that the people of Iraq will not do.
In the beginning, we were told, Iraqis would welcome us with tears of joy and roses strewn in our path. Then we were told that there was no resistance, only a few hundred jihadi, foreign adventurers, Baathist sociopaths, criminals and losers. Now we are told that we're going to take back the 30 cities and other "no-go zones" that we were never supposed to lose, as though these places were ever ours, or ours now to "take back." Fallujah, Ramadi, Sadr City, Samarra are only the start: the start for an Army and Marine Corps increasingly exhausted by occupation duty.
Today, we face a complex insurgency with one classic feature: The insurgents live and move among the people. The locals know who they are, where they are, how they operate.
Iraq is saturated with weaponry. The Iraqi people are armed, as I discovered during the three weeks I spent last summer in the Sunni Triangle, embedded with the Army and Marines. They have the knowledge and the means to mount their own resistance, quietly going about the grim business of penetrating the insurgency and killing those who need killing, with or without Mr. Bush and Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's approval. But the Iraqi people have chosen to screen the insurgency with the silence of their weapons and the silence of their voices. They will neither defend themselves against those who would oppress them nor help us against other Muslims.
The silence of the armed is the silence of consent.
But their silence won't survive the current American offensive, especially in the cities. Urban combat generates death, especially when the enemy wears no uniform and routinely hazards his own people. There are no "precision-guided munitions" when they're landing all around you. Accidents happen. And although U.S. troops have so far behaved with an exemplary combination of courtesy and fire discipline - I witnessed it over and over - this cannot go on forever. As casualties mount and fear and fatigue take their toll, empathy yields to hate. Things that are not accidents also happen.
As the silence of the Iraqi people segues into hatred - hatred of us for the quality and duration of the violence we bring to bear upon them - this country that expects its wars to be quick and cheap and require no draft should not be surprised. But we will be. Pundits and spin doctors will feign outrage, demanding to know: How dare the Iraqi people turn down the freedom we offer? How dare they prefer renewed oppression and possible civil war to ... us?
America liberated Iraq from a monster. But the Iraqi people will not fight for their own freedom, and without their active participation, it matters less how many troops we deploy or how many operations we mount or how many half-trained Iraqi battalions we stand up or how many police academy graduations we stage. Perhaps freedom doesn't matter to them. Or perhaps other things matter more.
Liberators go home. Conquerors stay, and no amount of mercy and generosity can change the fact that they're conquerors. People don't like to be conquered. And in the end, conquerors pay terrible prices for their conquests.
For the sake of two nations, America should withdraw from Iraq.
Erin Solaro, a Seattle-based writer recently returned from Iraq, is working on a book, "Beyond GI Jane: American Women, the War on Terror", and the New Civic Feminism.
© 2004 The Baltimore Sun