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Jewish World Review May 24, 2004/ 4 Sivan, 5764

Mark Steyn

Mark Steyn
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Faster & fiercer: Asymmetrical federalism in Iraq |
Here's a story no American news organization thought worth covering last week, so you'll just have to take it from me. In the southern Iraqi town of Amara, 20 men from Scotland's Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders came under attack from 100 or so of Muqtada al-Sadr's ''insurgents.'' So they fixed bayonets and charged.

It was the first British bayonet charge since the Falklands War 20 years ago. And at the end of it some 35 of the enemy were dead in return for three minor wounds on the Argylls' side.

If you're used to smart bombs, unmanned drones and doing it all by computer back at HQ, you're probably wondering why a modern Western army is still running around with bayonets at the end of their rifles. The answer is that it's a very basic form of psychological warfare.

''If you're defending a position and you see someone advancing with a bayonet, you may be more inclined to surrender,'' Col. Ed Brown told the British newspaper the Guardian. ''I've never been bayoneted, but I can imagine it's pretty gruesome.'' Or as Cpl. Jones, veteran of the Sudan, used to say every week on the ancient BBC sitcom ''Dad's Army'': ''They don't like it up 'em.''

By comparison, a Cruise missile, an unmanned drone, even a bullet are all antiseptic forms of warfare. When a chap's charging at you with a bayonet, he's telling you he's personally willing to run you through with cold steel. The bullet may get you first, but, if it doesn't, he'll do it himself. To the average British squaddie in the 21st century, the bayonet's main practical purpose is for opening tinned food. But when you need it on the battlefield, it's still a powerful signal of your resolve, your will.

When coalition forces engage the foe in Amara, in Najaf or Fallujah, that's always going to be the rough ratio: three light wounds to 10 times as many enemy dead. It's in the broader political engagement in Iraq that the coalition needs to metaphorically fix bayonets and go hand-to-hand with its opponents. The Sunni big shots and Sadr militias, the Baathist dead-enders and foreign terrorists, the freaks and losers have made a bet: that the infidels could handle the long-range antiseptic bombing but don't have the stomach for the messy mano-a-mano stuff that follows.

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And they have a point. From Baghdad press conferences to Colin Powell, too much of the tone is half-hearted and implicitly apologetic: On bad days, the president himself is beginning to sound like an unmanned drone. The coalition needs to regain the offensive, to demonstrate not just weary stoicism but fierce will — the same will those Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders showed. Bush has to be bold and imaginative, and to end the impression that he, his administration and America itself are mere hostages to events.

How do you do it? Many commentators are now calling for faster elections in Iraq. I'd prefer to go for ''asymmetrical federalism,'' which is a Canadian term, but don't let that put you off. What it means is that the province of Quebec has certain powers — its own immigration policy, for example — that the province of Ontario doesn't.

Obviously, any self-respecting American would regard it as an abomination if the state of Vermont had a completely different level of sovereignty from the state of New Hampshire. But not all nations are as harmoniously constituted as the USA. I'm not just talking your average banana-republic basket case. Take America's closest ally: the four parts of the United Kingdom — England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales — are governed completely differently, three of the four having ''national'' parliaments with widely varying degrees of power, and the fourth (England) having no parliament at all. Scotland has revenue-raising powers, Wales doesn't. There's no constitutional logic to it: It's merely the central government's utilitarian response to different local conditions.

Something of the sort is already happening on the ground in Iraq. There are some 8,000 towns and villages in the country. How many do you hear about on the news? For a week, it's all Fallujah all the time. Then it's Najaf, and nada for anywhere else. Currently, 90 percent of Iraqi coverage is about one lousy building: Abu Ghraib. So what's going on in the other 7,997 dots on the map? In the Shia province of Dhi Qar, a couple hundred miles southeast of Baghdad, 16 of the biggest 20 cities plus many smaller towns will have elected councils by June. These were the first free elections in Dhi Qar's history and ''in almost every case, secular independents and representatives of nonreligious parties did better than the Islamists.'' That assessment is from the anti-war anti-Bush anti-Blair Euro-lefties at the Guardian, by the way.

That policy of ad hoc, incremental, rolling devolution needs to be accelerated. Towns and provinces should have as much sovereignty as they can handle, on the obvious principle that the constituent parts of ramshackle federations rarely progress at the same pace. In the former Yugoslavia, Slovenia is now an advanced Western economy, Kosovo is a U.N. slum housing project. If one were to cast the situation in rough British terms, the Kurdish areas are broadly analogous to Scotland, Dhi Qar and other Shia provinces are Wales, and the Sunni Triangle is Northern Ireland.

Even in the Sunni Triangle, remove Fallujah and the remaining 95 percent is relatively calm. And, while Fallujah hasn't been removed, it has been more or less quarantined. There have been fewer lethal attacks in Baghdad in recent weeks in part because many of the perpetrators were Fallujah residents who used to drive up to the capital for a little light RPG work in the evening. Now they're pinned down in their hometown.

We need more of that. The best bulwark against tyranny is a population that knows the benefits of freedom, as the Iraqi Kurds do. Don't make the mistake of turning Iraq into a dysfunctional American public school, where the smart guys get held down to the low standards of the misfits and in the end they all get the same social promotion anyway. Let's get on with giving the Kurdish and Shia areas elected governors and practical sovereignty, province by province.

And then fix bayonets and stick it to the holdouts.

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JWR contributor Mark Steyn is North American Editor of The (London) Spectator and the author, most recently, of "The Face of the Tiger," a new book on the world post-Sept. 11. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.


© 2004, Mark Steyn