When the Course Can't be Stayed

By William Raspberry

Monday, November 24, 2003; Page A21

It's hard to know which is the better analogy for our predicament in Iraq: Vietnam or Israel.

Vietnam is tempting, since it is what the word "quagmire" brings to mind -- and Iraq increasingly is looking like "a difficult, precarious, or entrapping position," which is how my Webster's Collegiate dictionary defines quagmire.

What makes me think of Israel, though, is last week's American bombing raid near the central Iraq town of Tikrit -- an attempt to wipe out the anti-occupation guerrillas thought to be ensconced there. It sounds for all the world like the retaliatory raids that follow virtually every suicide bomb attack in Israel. And the logic by which the decision to strike at largely civilian targets is the same.

The individuals who carry out the deadly terrorist attacks are most often dead at their own hands, and therefore beyond retaliation. The only retaliatory response that makes sense is to hit those who sent them. And since these cowards hide among civilian populations, the painful reality is that doing what is necessary involves civilian casualties.

What happens, of course, is that every such retaliatory strike spawns more terrorists and vastly increases the number of civilians who, forced to choose between the home-grown terrorists and the alien retaliators, take the side of the terrorists.

Sometimes, whether in Iraq or in Palestine, they think they don't have a choice. The price of siding with the outsiders can be high.

For the American-led coalition forces in Iraq, the difficulties are tragically obvious. They were fine when all they had to do was win a war against a weakened and largely unresisting Iraqi military. But then they were asked to cap their military victory by establishing peace in a place whose government they had removed, whose language they didn't speak and whose economy and civic order they had wrecked.

Even Iraqis who hated the now-deposed Saddam Hussein couldn't be expected to love the outsiders who not only overthrew the dictator but who also killed untold numbers of their relatives in the process. There are plenty of reasons for the locals to dislike the coalition forces -- at least to the point of giving cover to those who would strike out against the invaders.

But our guys can't just sit back and let that happen. So a week ago, in what may have been a turning point in the postwar, U.S. forces hit a Tikrit-area village with helicopter gunships, tanks, satellite-guided rockets and 500-pound bombs.

"We have to use these capabilities to take the fight to the enemy," Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, explained. "And why not?"

It's a good question -- if your principal objective is either to protect your own forces or to wipe out guerrillas. But if your mission is to win over the Iraqi people, bringing the war to their neighborhoods works about as well as it has worked in Palestine. At least the Israelis are clear that their own security is their first priority.

The problem for the coalition is that the terrorists are not necessarily some ragtag band of malcontents that can be hunted down and taken out one by one. They may be more like a particularly aggressive virus that is spread by the very medicine prescribed to cure it.

And they may be more than that. One hears more and more some version of the theory I first heard from D.L. Cuddy, author of a book about Iraq called "Cover-Up: Government Spin or Truth?" Cuddy's notion is that the guerrilla war we're now flailing against is precisely the war Saddam Hussein intended to fight all along. That, he argues, is why Hussein offered only token resistance, preferring to wait for the coalition to disperse into smaller patrols, vulnerable to hit-and-run assaults. Saddam, in this scenario, doesn't need victory; he only needs chaos, uncertainty, demoralization -- and the fervent wish by most Iraqis that the outsiders just go home.

For all the Bush administration's brave talk about staying the course, the course they've chosen may become increasingly unstayable -- and not just because a presidential election looms.

Maybe all we can do is turn things over to some legitimate-appearing Iraqi authority constituted under the aegis of the United Nations and hope that it can keep it together long enough to get us more or less gracefully out of town.

willrasp@washpost.com