CONQUEST OR LIBERATION?….Tacitus had a long and agonized post on Friday condemning our retreat from Fallujah and suggesting that it is the latest in a long line of ignominious Western retreats from inferior Islamic forces. It includes this:

Imagine, if you will, a world in which Jimmy Carter stood strong against theocratic barbarism in Iran; a world in which Ronald Reagan displayed the fortitude to not bend to terrorists and Syrians in Lebanon; a world in which the Russians did not bow to Islamist guerrillas….

In the world that Tacitus imagines, main force always works if only you keep applying it long enough. Unfortunately, the real lesson of the past quarter century is not the one he draws. The real lesson is that we are trying to square an impossible circle.

In a war of conquest and occupation, the kind of brute force that many on the right think we should have brought to bear in Fallujah is routine. If you are a conquering and occupying power, therefore, it’s perfectly appropriate.

However, wars of conquest and occupation are no longer acceptable in the West, even to conservatives, and so George Bush and Tony Blair have characterized Iraq as a war of liberation. But in a war of liberation, you are expected to liberate. You are emphatically not expected to raze entire cities at the cost of thousands of civilian lives.

Even if this dilemma was not clear before, the events of the past year should have brought it into sharp focus for anyone who thinks seriously about these things. In a war like the one we’re in, the tactics of conquest are the only ones that will work, but conquest itself is both unacceptable to us and conterproductive to our long-term goal of engaging moderate Muslims ? a goal accepted by both liberals and conservatives alike as key to long term victory.

The conclusion is hard to escape: conventional military force is simply not the right weapon for the war on terror. Conquest and occupation in the heart of the Arab world are exactly what Osama bin Laden hoped for from us, and we should never have allowed him to dictate the terms of the fight like that. It’s true that various forms of military force will be necessary now and again for us to eradicate terrorism, but a head-on battle with thousands of regular troops is precisely the form of military force that is least likely to produce victory.

Tacitus is right that George Bush has fought this war foolishly, but that’s been clear for over a year at least. We need to fight on our terms, not theirs, and we need a president who understands that. George Bush doesn’t.

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