It was as normal a morning as you could have working in Baghdad. The sky was clear, the sun was baking the landscape and I hurried into work through the maze of checkpoints and concertina wire. I took my usual place in the large, dusty bullpen of mismatched office furniture, creaking chairs and wires in what once was a ballroom of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace on the banks of the Tigris.
Settling in to work I noticed one of our Iraqi translators, who was a regular part of our team, glaring intently at one of the three televisions perched precariously atop the rickety storage closets nearby. He was watching Fox News or one of the American cable networks that were perpetually flickering on in the office. His arms folded and his brow furrowed he was absorbing some coverage from the California Recall election.
It was the day that Governor Gray Davis lost his bid to remain in office. One of my American colleagues was watching with him. The Iraqi translator turned to him and asked, “So what happens to this man now? Does he go to jail? Is he exiled?” My colleague, sporting a big grin on his face responded “No, he just left office.” Disbelieving, our Iraqi friend asked again, this time turning to me, if Davis would be punished in some way. Chiming in with a degree of fascination and amusement, I said something to the effect of, “No, he just leaves office. He is free to go on with his life as he chooses.”
This brought a broad smile to the man’s face. He was surprised and fascinated. In that moment, watching this extraordinary exercise of authority by ordinary people back in the United States, this one Iraqi believed in his heart perhaps just a little more fervently that government by the people was possible. I like to think that at that moment he believed democracy wasn’t some nebulous, untested theory. It was proven and possible. There was nothing like seeing the light bulb go off over someone’s head when they came to that realization. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to see it many times during my time in Iraq.
As the tenth anniversary of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom came and went last week, most of the coverage sounded the familiar tone of regret. As it was during the war and its aftermath, almost none of it reflected any of the progress that was achieved through the courage, blood and sacrifice of our military and civilians.
Over the next year, as key anniversary dates come and go, the war’s detractors will have countless opportunities to again pound their chests about the flaws of the Iraq mission. They are now increasing joined by conservatives who have thrown up their hands when it comes to Iraq because of the political impact the war has had on the Republican Party. In so doing, they will project a lack of respect for the hard work, courage and vision of those who fought the fight politicians in Washington were unwilling to defend.
From the very beginning when it came to Iraq, we were never just fighting Saddam’s forces, al-Qaida, other foreign terrorists, Sunni dead-enders or Iranian-supported extremists. We were fighting the perception here at home that Iraq was another Vietnam – a war based on lies that the public never fully understood. In fact, there were journalists and so-called opinion leaders who were comparing Iraq to Vietnam within weeks of the invasion.
We were fighting a war of public opinion and as is too often the case, the progressive voices were much louder. Opponents of the war churned out gruesome imagery, sensational headlines, and defeatist sound bites seven days a week for years, until the war was seen as a little more than a fool’s errand. The Administration failed to aggressively defend its own policy and the American people were spoon fed a lopsided view of the war.
Yes, there were mistakes in the execution of the war. Yes, more troops were necessary from the beginning and the rise of radical Shia extremists was not addressed with sufficient force. During the war, the Bush Administration unfortunately failed to defend its Iraq policy more effectively. Under President Obama, we’ve done an even greater disservice to those who served by essentially turning Iraq over to the Iranians, in exchange for nothing more than election year political talking points.
Criticism is warranted for the way the war was prosecuted, but to suggest that our efforts were wholly in vain is to deny the brave work of hundreds of thousands of our citizens.
What continues to be shocking to me even after all these years is the willingness of those on both sides of the political spectrum to eschew the strategy of addressing the freedom deficit in the Middle East as a way of fighting the extremism that is destabilizing the region and breeding terrorism. What continues to be abhorrent is the willingness of political talking heads to focus almost exclusively on what we did wrong forgoing any mention of the good work thousands of ordinary Americans who under difficult circumstances accomplished extraordinary things. They brought the vision of a free, democratic nation in the heart of the Middle East closer to reality than ever before. Those Americans and Coalition troops were joined by millions of brave Iraqi civilians who risked life itself to help further that effort.
After Vietnam, this country made a commitment that we would never treat those who serve with disdain because they fought in an unpopular war. While our combat veterans are appreciated more today than perhaps ever before, the coverage of the Iraq War anniversary disrespects them by failing to acknowledge the progress that was made for millions of people who lived with unspeakable brutality three times longer than Hitler ruled Germany.
To ignore those achievements in Iraq is to possibly imperil our own future.
As Americans, we must never shy away from the concept that freedom leads to human advancement and advancement to tolerance and tolerance to peace. For all those who rail against “nation building” it has been an essential part of our strategy since WWII. Then too the U.S. continued involvement in post war Germany, Japan and other nations was criticized as imperialistic. Imagine what would have happened if we had just walked away. The Soviets would have taken advantage of our disengagement and their influence would have cut across the whole of Europe.
In the coming months, there will be more anniversaries and more reasons to look back at our decade-long engagement in Iraq. With the Middle East still a tinderbox despite the President’s naïve assertions about the Arab Spring, we must remember, if we allow the media and progressives to color every US military engagement as another Vietnam, we will find ourselves the very paper tiger terrorists and enemies of this nation exploited at the turn of this century. We will be complicit in creating a more dangerous world for everyone.
Thomas J. Basile is a political commentator. He served as Senior Press Advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad from 2003-2004. Follow him on Twitter @TJBasile.