Big Talk

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Where I grew up, the code of the hills says (among many other things) to never talk a bigger game than you are prepared to play.

The United States has done this twice in Iraq and now has egg on its face that no amount of Washington spin can clean off.

Example No. 1 is Fallujah. Instead of sending a small force with Iraqis into Fallujah to negotiate the possible surrender of those who killed the four mercenaries, the United States surrounded the city and, like a movie sheriff, shouted, "Come out with your hands up, or we’re coming in."

Well, nobody came out, and we started to go in and found out, lo and behold, that it was not going to be as easy to take this city as apparently some of the brass had thought. In fact, it was impossible to take the city without killing so many innocent Iraqis in the process that we would have won the battle and lost the war.

So started the unilateral cease-fire and negotiations marked by constant warnings: "Our patience is not eternal," "better hurry up," "we’re not going to wait forever," etc., and blah, blah. In the meantime, the resistance fighters have become national heroes, because the perception is that with their light arms they have stopped the mighty United States.

Technically, it’s not true, because, of course, we could flatten the city. But the world operates mainly on perceptions, not necessarily on realities. And the reality is that even though we have the power to take the city, we are not willing to spend the political capital that mass civilian casualties would cost us.

So at last some of Saddam’s old generals came to our rescue. The Fallujah Brigade, which will no doubt contain many of the people we were fighting, saves face by bringing peace to Fallujah. It was apparently organized by a former Iraqi army general, and even though he has been relegated to second in command by another Iraqi general more to our liking, the people of Fallujah are flashing the victory sign. They see this as a defeat for the United States.

It wouldn’t have been if the occupational authorities had had the brains to negotiate first before calling out the Marines. We didn’t have to flaunt our military power by surrounding the city. Every Iraqi in the country knows American military power is unbeatable. After all, the Iraqis have suffered from it for 14 years. But, if you flaunt it and then don’t use it, you create a perception of weakness.

So the Fallujah story isn’t over, but if the United States thinks these Iraqi troops will fight alongside Marines inside Fallujah, they are, in my opinion, in for a surprise.

A second example of a big mouth getting the United States in trouble is the chubby little cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. For nearly a year the U.S. line was that al-Sadr was "insignificant" and had only a few followers. So U.S. officials ignored him. Then they announced they were going to arrest him for murder.

Well, any country cop will tell you that it is better to grab the guy and then announce the arrest rather than talk first. Al-Sadr did a shoot-and-scoot and is now holed up inside the holiest of cities for the world’s Shiites. We don’t dare shoot our way in there, and he knows it.

So here we are with 2,500 troops camped outside Najaf and still blathering that we are going to arrest or kill al-Sadr. And the weeks go by. I’m sure we’re trying to arrange his murder by some Shiites, or at least a snatch job by some Shiites who don’t agree with him. In the meantime, we have elevated him from "insignificant" to an Iraqi hero.

Al-Sadr is now in a win-win situation. He’s more popular than he’s ever been. If we do find a way to kill him, he’ll be a martyr, and all of his followers will be out for vengeance. If we don’t catch or kill him, we will have lost face in a part of the world where face counts a lot.

Some folks have given the Bush administration a failing grade on the economy; others have given it a failing grade on the environment. I think it also deserves a failing grade on occupation. The administration just can’t seem to get the hang of it.

Charley Reese has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.

© 2004 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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