Notwithstanding the deadly attacks of recent days, Iraq isn't America's Vietnam. As I've written before, it's not jungle warfare against Viet Cong platoons backed by North Vietnamese artillery and tanks. It's urban warfare against small bands of faceless hit-and-run terrorists and suicide bombers.
That doesn't make it any less deadly for the Iraqis, Americans, and others in harm's way. That doesn't make it any less tragic for families of the fallen, or less sobering for those of us who must watch the carnage on TV news, and grimace at images of terrorism's friends dancing with glee at American deaths.
But it is a new phase in a war that requires a new approach from those that must fight it, and new fortitude and probably sacrifice from the American people if they choose to support it.
Phase 1 was the brilliant military operation by a modern US Army with space-age weaponry that demolished Saddam Hussein's regime. Phase 2 was the pacification and political and economic reconstruction of Iraq, which has been bedeviled by problems unforeseen or unplanned for. That incomplete phase has been overtaken by Phase 3, a mounting terror campaign by those who don't want a democratic regime and seek to thwart US nurturing of it.
The question now is whether the seeds of democracy can survive the tares of terrorism.
The British, in lands like Kenya, Malaya, and Northern Ireland, and the French in places like Indochina and Algeria, have had long experience in counterterrorism. It wasn't until 9/11 that Americans were brought face-to-face with terrorism as a brutal phenomenon affecting them directly. President Bush has consistently warned that neutralizing its threat will be a long process.
Terrorists understand that images and perception are key factors in achieving their political objectives. The notorious Tet offensive in was in fact a major military defeat for the Viet Cong, but TV images of black-clad guerrillas in the streets of Saigon did much to undermine the confidence of the US public. TV coverage of the toll in Beirut, when a suicide bomber hit a Marine barracks, caused the withdrawal of US forces from Lebanon. So it was again when TV pictures of US soldiers' bodies being dragged through Mogadishu caused a US retreat from Somalia.
Is the American public since 9/11 conditioned for the sacrifices that the war on terrorism may require? Sources close to the president say he has signaled his top advisers to hold steady in Iraq, whatever the political consequences for him in a presidential election campaign.
If public support continues, new counter- terrorism techniques and units will be needed - ones better able to penetrate and neutralize terrorist cells than non-Arabic-speaking occupation troops unskilled in such matters. Good intelligence is key, and requires much input from motivated, expanded Iraqi security forces.
If there is a continuing cost in lives and money, the stakes are nevertheless immense. A setback for terrorism in Iraq would be a setback for the same terrorist factions that threaten Americans in their homeland. A defeat for terrorism in Iraq would give that country an opportunity to become an economic and democratic example to the rest of the Muslim world.
That would play into a long-term strategy of lifting some of those lands from backwardness and out of a miasma of animosity toward the US. In his weekend TV appearances, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argued that in addition to tackling today's existing terrorists, the US needs to dissuade a new and rising generation in the Muslim world from embracing terrorism. He included a plea for the kind of dialogue and exchanges with young Arabs that might offset the harsh extremist teachings in Islamic schools and intellectual centers. He rued the demise of the United States Information Agency whose mission was to engage in just such on-the-ground explanation of American policy and culture.
In Iraq, success demands various ingredients: a strong US military presence, sharper counterterrorist techniques, more Iraqi responsibility for security, and steady progress toward democratization and economic reconstruction. But success cannot come without continuing resolve on the part of the American public.
• John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.