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JEFF JACOBY

What 'botched' occupation?

"EVERYWHERE I've traveled recently in Germany I've run into Americans, ranging from generals down to privates, who ask perplexedly, `What are we Americans supposed to be doing here? Are we going to take over this place and stay here forever?' "

So opened journalist Demaree Bess's article -- "How We Botched the German Occupation" -- in the Saturday Evening Post of Jan. 26, 1946. That was eight months after V-E Day, and Bess was sure that the Allies' military victory over Hitler was being squandered in the postwar.

"We have got into this German job without understanding what we were tackling or why," he wrote. "Not one American political leader fully realized at the outset how formidable our German commitments would prove to be. There was no idea, at the beginning, that Americans would become involved in a project to take Germany completely apart and put it together again in wholly new patterns."

Today, of course, few would argue that the United States "botched" the occupation of West Germany. Looking back from the early 21st century, it is clear that the transformation of the shattered Nazi Reich into a bulwark of democracy was one of the signal achievements of 20th-century statecraft. But on the ground in 1946, that happy outcome was nowhere in view. What was in view was an occupation beset by troubles -- chaotic, dangerous, and frequently vicious. Just like the one in Iraq today.

There is no denying that the news out of Iraq has been brutal lately. US soldiers die in roadside bombings and in brazen attacks like the helicopter downing that killed 15 on Sunday. Terrorists target civilian venues -- Red Cross offices, Muslim shrines, embassies -- for the bloodiest possible carnage. Iraqis are grateful to be free of Saddam Hussein, but many nonetheless inveigh against the American occupiers who toppled him. At the moment, Iraq seems a long, long way from anything resembling the stable and tolerant democracy President Bush says he is determined to see it become.

Not surprisingly, public support for the war is eroding. Only 54 percent of Americans still say it was worth fighting, according to the latest ABC/Washington Post poll. Just 47 percent of the public approves of President Bush's handling of Iraq; a thin majority, 51 percent, actually disapproved. Quagmire fears are deepening: 53 percent were "very" concerned that the United States will get bogged down. A few more horrific attacks, another bloody couple of months in Baghdad and Fallujah, and it isn't hard to imagine even more Americans giving up on Iraq and deciding we should never have gone in to begin with.

Which is exactly what Saddam and his murderer-loyalists -- and the terror cadres that have joined them -- are counting on. They expect us to walk away. They are certain that we will do again what we did in Beirut and Mogadishu: lose heart, pull out, and leave the Middle East to them.

Will we?

Make no mistake. We are now in the battle that will decide the course of the war. Either Iraq will be cleansed and democratized, or the war on terror will be lost. There is no middle ground. The Baathist diehards and Islamist car-bombers understand that everything is on the line. They know that if the Americans succeed in planting freedom and decency in the Arab world, they are finished. That is why they are determined at all costs to drive us out.

To his great credit, Bush has never wavered in his resolve to stay in Iraq until it is governed by a stable constitutional democracy. "The terrorists and the Baathists hope to weaken our will," he said on Nov. 1. "Our will canot be shaken." He and his administration have learned the core lesson of Sept. 11: The terrorist threat to civilization will never be rolled back until the Middle East is shaken from its nightmare of tyranny, cruelty, and religious fanaticism.

If only the Democrats running to replace Bush understood that lesson as well. Except for Senator Joseph Lieberman, none of them seems to grasp the magnitude of the stakes in Iraq. When they spoke of Iraq during their televised debate at Faneuil Hall Tuesday night, all they appeared to care about was genuflecting to the UN and denouncing "sweetheart deals for Halliburton."

On what is by far the most consequential issue of the day, the Democrats repeatedly come across as petty and unserious. The proper goal of the US occupation, the link between Iraq and American national security, the US role in reshaping the Middle East -- if the candidates have thought meaningfully about any of these, it is impossible to tell. Incredibly, the first post-9/11 presidential campaign is being contested by a Democratic lineup that has apparently learned next to nothing from 9/11.

Like the occupation of Germany in January 1946, America's work in Iraq is only getting underway. A huge amount of effort -- and danger -- still lies ahead. What Americans need now are leaders who can focus on the great work before them, not sideline snipers carping prematurely that the occupation has been "botched."

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.

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