Is Iraq Fit for "Freedom"?

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Jim Watson / AFP / Getty

President George W. Bush addresses the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention in Kansas City, Missouri, August 22, 2007.

The distance between Washington rhetoric and the reality of the Iraq war has always been vast. But even by that standard, President Bush's latest remarks are notable for their detachment from the facts on the ground.

For one thing, President Bush's speech to a Veterans of Foreign Wars group in Kansas City compared present-day Iraq to postwar Japan, arguing, "Then as now, the critics argued that some people were simply not fit for freedom."

But the conflict in which the U.S. is embroiled in Iraq has little to do with fitness for freedom. The President, for example, touts U.S. successes in "helping to bring former Sunni insurgents into the fight against al-Qaeda." This is indeed a laudable achievement by the U.S. military, but it has little to do with freedom or even with strengthening the Iraqi government. Turning Sunni insurgents against al-Qaeda may hasten the demise of the jihadist wing of the insurgency, but it will not end the violence in Iraq. Those same insurgents now fighting al-Qaeda remain implacably opposed to the democratically elected government in Baghdad.

Indeed, the men Bush now casts as freedom-loving allies in the battle against al-Qaeda are the very same insurgents dismissed by the Administration for years as thuggish dead-enders committed to reconstituting Saddam Hussein's brutal regime. They have turned to the U.S. military for help as they face annihilation at the hands of both Sunni jihadists and Shi'ite militiamen. Watching American soldiers patrol Sunni neighborhoods alongside masked ex-insurgent gunmen is a testament to the power of political chaos and brutal violence to create strange bedfellows. But such alliances are invariably temporary — U.S. commanders are well aware that these same insurgents may again turn their guns on the Iraqi government — and they hardly symbolize progress in a march towards freedom and democracy.

The leaders of some of these groups President Bush now counts as converts to the cause of freedom make no bones about their agenda. A former insurgent leader in west Baghdad said he believes he will have to fight the Iraqi government once he's through with al-Qaeda, because the Shi'ite-led government, in his view, is simply a militia-backed proxy of Iran.

Optimists may want to argue that such views will mellow as these groups are draw into the political process. But their view of the Iraqi government — democratically elected thought it may be — is not dissimilar to that of American soldiers and diplomats in Iraq.

A senior U.S. military official said this month that Sunni tribal sheiks and some former insurgents are more in touch with the will of the Sunni community than are the Sunnis elected to the national government. Commanders in key Baghdad neighborhoods such as Ghazaliya and Ameriyah acknowledge that their nominal partners in the Iraqi security forces are, in some cases, more loyal to Shi'ite militia chieftains than to the ephemeral ideal of a peaceful, non-sectarian, free Iraq. In that context, the events President Bush is citing as evidence of progress on the road to freedom may instead be simply a prelude to intensified sectarian violence.

Bush, speaking on behalf of U.S. soldiers, asked the question, "Will their elected leaders in Washington pull the rug out from under them just as they are gaining momentum and changing the dynamic on the ground in Iraq?"

Some soldiers certainly do wonder if Washington politics will interfere with their mission in Iraq. But with ex-insurgents proving better allies than elected Sunni politicians, and with the Shi'ite government unwilling and unable to create loyal and non-sectarian security forces, U.S. soldiers have a more pressing concern. They wonder if their military successes will be rendered irrelevant by the realities of Iraqi politics. That worry will not be assuaged by more platitudes from their commander in chief.