CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — In recent weeks, many US military units in Iraq have turned from trying to win Iraqi "hearts and minds" to a "get tough" policy that explicitly copies many moves from the playbook used by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the West Bank and Gaza. These moves include demolition of homes of suspects, imposition of stifling movement controls and other collective punishments on civilians, and the frequent use of excessive force.
Tactics like these are unethical under any moral code, and illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention. In addition, their adoption is shortsighted. In Israel itself, many leading strategic thinkers now openly admit that the IDF's three-year-long pursuit of these tactics has still not "convinced" the Palestinians to end their defiance of Israel's will.
(It is also tragic that US commanders moved to these antihumanitarian and antidemocratic measures at the same time President Bush issued his call for the spread of democracy throughout the Arab world.)
In Israel, criticism of the country's get-tough policies toward Palestinians has been voiced by four former heads of the country's Shin Bet security agency - and also by Gen. Moshe Yaalon who, as sitting IDF chief of staff, is the man in charge of implementing all the IDF's policies. In late October, Mr. Yaalon voiced a rare public criticism of the civilian leaders whose mandate he is sworn to follow. He told reporters that the IDF's unrelenting use of tough tactics in the occupied territories, "increases hatred for Israel and strengthens the terror organizations." He added, "In our tactical decisions, we are operating contrary to our strategic interest."
In the US military, several planners and commanders have been taking lessons in tactics from the IDF. In July, for example, Brig. Gen. Michael Vane, a deputy chief of staff at the US Army Training and Doctrine Command, wrote in a letter to Army Magazine that he had recently traveled to Israel "to glean lessons learned from their counterterrorist operations in urban areas." But so far, US commanders on the ground in Iraq seem not to have learned of Ya'alon's important insight that decisions that seem sound at the tactical level can add up to a setback at the broader level of national strategy.
One US colonel overseeing movement controls around a village north of Baghdad explained to The New York Times how he thinks the new tough policy will work: "With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them."
I don't underestimate the challenge the US commanders face in Iraq. A recent poll organized by a British company found that only 21 percent of Iraqis said they had "quite a lot" of trust in the US and British forces there. The rest all described their trust level as "not very much," or "none at all." The get-tough policies are only likely to make things worse.
The US commanders in Iraq are trying to do their best in an almost impossible situation. In March, the military was ordered by its civilian bosses to undertake a rapid advance into Iraq with a small, mobile force - and with the expectation that Saddam Hussein's regime would fall and the Iraqi people would greet them with open arms. Hussein's regime fell. But the attitudes of most Iraqis toward the US forces have been much more complex than expected, and the force levels there have never been enough to assure public security or the restoration of basic services.
At this point, the situation has become so tense that it is unlikely that merely increasing the force levels could solve the problem. Anyway, the US has no additional forces to spare, and few or no other countries look ready to add their troops.
The only way forward, then, is for President Bush and his advisers to act seriously on all their fine rhetoric about the need for a rapid transition to Iraqi self-government. Can the US-dominated occupation force oversee this transition smoothly and successfully? The evidence so far all says "no." If not the US, who? Only the United Nations has the experience and the legitimacy to play this absolutely vital leadership role.
Yes, a transitional UN political leadership in Iraq might still have some reliance on US forces. But those forces would no longer be trapped in self-defeating, made-in-Israel paradigms of using "fear and violence." They would be working alongside Iraqis and experienced UN democracy-builders as partners, not intimidators.
The Iraq Census Bureau says it could produce a decent national voter roll by next September. But to have genuine elections - whether in Iraq or the West Bank - people need freedom of movement, freedom of expression, freedom of association. Those are freedoms we should all support. They are quite incompatible with get-tough military occupation.
• Helena Cobban is the author of five books on international issues.