The war in Iraq is reaching its most critical stage, a stage that should be supported by civilized people and powers everywhere—Western, Eastern, and Middle Eastern—regardless of their views about the war at the outset. Yet, just as President Bush should be recalibrating and refining a case for this support, both to the American people and to the rest of the world, he's rehashing canned clichés and shallow falsehoods, which will only deepen the disaffection.
On Monday, at a White House press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Bush was asked whether he thought the Iraqi insurgency was getting harder to defeat militarily.
"No, I don't think so," Bush replied. "I think they're being defeated. And that's why they continue to fight. The worst thing for them is to see democracy. … The worst problem that an ideologue that uses terror to try to get their way is to see a free society emerge. And I'm confident we're making great progress in Iraq."
Almost since the second phase of the war began, President Bush and his aides have been reciting this mantra—that the insurgents fight so dirty because they're so desperate. The claim had a whiff of self-deception back then; after 18 months of nonstop guerrilla warfare, with the insurgents still mounting 70 attacks a day, it borders on the pathological.
Do the insurgents really continue to fight because they're being defeated? Then what would be an indication of their winning—that they stop fighting? Certainly none of the president's military commanders believe any of this. They acknowledge that the insurgents are using increasingly sophisticated methods, that the fight could go on for years, and that there's no guarantee we'll win it.
But a more troubling aspect of President Bush's remarks is his implicit claim that the insurgents are all ideologues who use terror to block the emergence of a free and democratic Iraq. Some of the insurgents—the Islamists and foreign volunteers inspired by Osama Bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—do simply want to prevent any democratically elected Iraqi government from succeeding. But, according to a new report by Anthony Cordesman, a veteran political and military analyst at the conservative Center for Strategic and International Studies, these groups probably account for no more than 5 to 10 percent of the insurgent fighters.
The largest element of the insurgency is what Cordesman calls the "newly radicalized Iraqi Sunnis." Since the toppling of Saddam Hussein, they have experienced a loss of power, prestige, and economic status; 40 to 60 percent of young Sunni men are unemployed; thousands were deprived of paychecks and pensions when the Bush administration shortsightedly disbanded the Iraqi army—but they weren't deprived of their guns.
This faction has sometimes joined forces, when their interests merge, with the Islamists—or with holdovers from Saddam's Baathist Party, or with criminal elements who simply want to loot. But they have aligned most intensively with Sunni nationalists who, Cordesman notes, are "involved in a struggle for current power." In other words, they're not fighting against order; they're fighting for a place within the order.
The dominating influence of these nationalist factions explains why the more militant insurgents currently enjoy support even from Sunnis who do not engage in the violence themselves. Iraq's own intelligence agencies estimate the insurgency consists of 15,000 to 40,000 core fighters—and about 160,000 supporters.
As a result, Cordesman writes, the insurgency:
[C]an survive and endure as long as the government is too weak to occupy the insurgency-dominated areas, and as long as the large majority of Sunnis in given areas does not see a clear incentive to join the government and Iraq's political process.
The good news is that at least some high-ranking officials in the Bush administration, if not the president himself, are beginning to realize the truth and implications of this analysis. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a trip to Baghdad last week precisely to urge Iraq's Shiite-dominated government to bring in more Sunnis.
There is some encouragement from the other side, as well. Last month, the Sunni leaders in the Association of Muslim Scholars reversed their previous position condemning Iraqis who join the government's security force. In the weeks since, more and more Sunnis have acknowledged that they made a huge error in boycotting last January's election and have pledged to run candidates in the next election at the end of the year.
The delicate task for the Bush administration is, first, to facilitate this process, for the present phase of the war can be concluded only by a political settlement involving the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds; and then, second, to step up the fight—eventually to get the Iraqi Sunnis to join the fight—against Zarqawi's allies, whose numbers may be sparse but whose passion is fierce and whose cause is utterly destructive.
In the meantime, if President Bush really believes that the war is simply a contest of good versus evil, freedom versus tyranny, terrorists versus democrats, he will never be able to defeat the insurgency because he misunderstands its nature, its motives, and the reasons for its giant wellspring of internal support. Or, if he doesn't believe what he's saying, it's nearly as egregious for him to continue portraying the war in such bald terms because, as long as he keeps doing so, he will never be able to persuade the public of the tasks at hand, the stakes of the match, or the definition of winning and losing.