What will victory look like in Iraq? How will we know if we’re getting closer to victory, or farther from it? Back in January I spent some time with the US Army’s Ist Division, Task Force Dagger at Forward Operating Base Justice in Baghdad, and came away with a small picture of what a peaceful, stable Iraq might look like. More importantly, I saw how we might be getting there. Tragically, what I saw in Al Salam might turn out to be a fleeting glimpse of a stable, peaceful and secure Iraq that will never be.

Among the 200 or so US Army officers and enlisted at Foward Operating Base Justice in western Baghdad is one of the most unique soldiers in the Army. Captain Stacy Bare, the camp’s civil affairs officer, describes himself as “part Wookie.” It’s not hard to see why. At six-foot-eight with a deep bass voice that carries across a courtyard even in a whisper, the 28-year-old South Dakotan could easily don a carpet suit and stand in for Han Solo’s furry sidekick.

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CPT Stacy Bare talks about jobs with men from one of Baghdad’s slums.

The Airborne patch on his shoulder, the body armor across his huge frame and the M-4 rifle across his chest give Bare the visage of the real world version of the “army of one” slogan that the Army thankfully ditched. But Bare’s mission here is complex and subtle. He takes territory from the insurgents and militias a neighborhood at a time, by asking questions and fulfilling promises rather than by applying direct force. In the Al Salam neighborhood a mile or so from FOB Justice, in fact, the use of force in what the military calls “kinetic activity” has become counterproductive according to Bare’s commander, LTC Steve Miska.

Miska: If the enemy is getting us into gunfights in the street, then they’re winning that day because…they’re delaying our ability to focus on the population.

Bare and his fellow soldiers travel to Al Salam in a convoy of four Humvees, with a total of 12 soldiers, two interpreters and two press including myself and Michelle Malkin. The Hummers park and establish a security cordon within seconds, and Bare along with several other troops dismount and head for a small building nearby. Bare sets the helmet and his body armor on the floor upon entering the squat building. His rifle stays with the armor as he takes his place at the long conference table in the center of the room. Setting aside the weapon and body armor is one of many signals that Bare and his troops give to show their Iraqi hosts that they have come for peaceful reasons and that they trust their hosts. Today he’s here to meet with the NAC, or Neighborhood Advisory Council, a group of local citizens who have come together over time to make life in their community better by asking the Americans for help, and by helping the Americans when asked. Similar groups all over Baghdad meet with American troops weekly, but Al Salam’s NAC is one of the most successful to date in turning their neighborhood around.

CPT Bare and a the soldiers with him exchange greetings with the five or six men and a woman who comprise the council. Judging from body language, eye contact and expressions, these Iraqis are glad to meet the familiar young Americans. Iraqi chai tea, apparently to this country what coffee is to ours, is served by a middle-aged woman who smiles at the Americans while she sets the tiny tea glasses before them and the council members around the conference table. It’s an Earl Grey tea, sweetened with a thick layer of sugar at the bottom of the tiny cup, and it’s delicious. The room itself is spare, with just one flourescent strip bulb providing artificial light and several large windows allowing in enough natural light to give the room a darkish but not at all sinister feel. On one wall is a satellite photo of Baghdad, with its bewildering array of neighborhoods marked and numbered. We’re in Number 408, a mile or so northwest of hyperviolent Haifa Street. Though Al Salam and Haifa Street aren’t far apart geographically, they might as well be in separate countries. Masked insurgent gunmen fire on Coalition forces from every imaginable sniper nest on Haifa; in Al Salam, the American Army rides in to a friendly reception. If there are hostile forces in Al Salam, they are nowhere to be seen today and haven’t caused much trouble in a month or so.

The warmth and welcome on display here is a fairly recent development. Only a few months ago, Al Salam was a sketchy and somewhat dangerous area, rife with the sectarian divisions and lack of civil order that plague swaths of Baghdad. Its recovery could point the way for the rest of the city and Iraq itself, as the Iraqi people slowly come out from under 35 years of Saddam Hussein’s monopoly on power and violence and learn to solve local problems with local remedies. As they have no recent history of self governance, it will take them time to learn to think and act for themselves, and CPT Bare is here to show them how.

Once the NAC and the soldiers are seated and the chai is in hand, CPT Bare leads the meeting, though the local analog of a mayor and a sheik are present and seated at the table’s head. Through his terp, Armyspeak for interpreter, Bare first delivers two boxes that represent promises made and promises kept. Local women have decided that they want to learn sewing in order to find work. The boxes contain two brand new Brother sewing machines. Fatima, the council’s lone woman member present, smiles broadly and says “shukra”–“thank you” in Arabic. Local women will learn to sew, find work, and help make their families and their community stronger. And they will remember that the Americans made it possible.

After the sewing machine delivery, the meeting gets down to business. The council updates Bare on their projects and he updates them on the status of various requests they have made to him in previous weekly meetings. Contracts for one project haven’t happened, due to the reluctance of some companies in other districts to operate across sectarian neighborhood boundaries. So CPT Bare, who has been working on several issues with leaders of local elementary schools, suggests dropping those floundering projects in favor of finding contractors to bid on providing meals for a school breakfast and lunch program. Surely a shop in Al Salam can fulfill the contract. The NAC agrees. A little bit of Head Start comes to Baghdad. If only the liberals back home knew what the Army’s finest were up to over here.

Bare: What we’re trying to accomplish at the end of the day…that the people have trust and confidence in that local government.

While that part of the meeting moved along, in the corner of the room with the satellite image on the wall, a local man and Army sergeant converse through another interpreter. The man is pointing to the map and telling the soldier which streets in the area still have security problems, either from insurgents or militia activity. Security issues remain this neighborhood’s major obstacle from achieving the prosperity that nearby Khadimiyah is already enjoying, and it helps both the Americans and the locals to tamp the violence down. The information that the Al Salam community volunteers through this sidebar intelligence briefing will get passed through the US command to the Iraqi army brigade that shares Camp Justice with Bare’s unit. Joint presence patrols and perhaps even sweeps and raids will be used to deal with the problem. The Americans help the Iraqis with their local governance and service issues, and the Iraqis in turn help the Americans find and deal with security threats. And a little bit of Baghdad moves an inch or two toward a new, less dangerous normal.

The truth is, liberals should love the war in Iraq, since it’s being fought to a great extent along notions of soft power over hard power. It’s much less about firepower than it is about the power of basic services to bring about peace. It’s about bringing “good government” and civil liberties and human rights to war torn Baghdad, a city that has seen none of those things in decades, if ever. At least half the war’s most vital action takes place in meetings like this one in Al Salam to discuss works projects, school re-buildings and urban renewal. It’s all part of the complex mission in Iraq, a mission that morphed from the defeat of an entrenched dictatorship to one focused on building a civil society that will survive after the Americans leave. CPT Bare and the rest of the US military are trying to build a nation that Saddam Hussein broke, both by keeping the Iraqi people under his boot heel for 35 years and by leading it into needless wars to establish himself as a latter-day Nebuchadnezzar. In Saddam’s rule by fear, the basic idea of taking care of one’s own community broke down in favor of the daily need to survive by avoiding attracting the Baathist government’s attention. The Americans have to remove the fear that built up over decades, restore hope and help the Iraqis rebuild their lives and nation. Hard power may clear and hold Baghdad’s rough streets, but it will be CPT Bare’s relentless application of soft power that will win the war.

This is how the conflict in Iraq will be won, or lost. There won’t be an Iwo Jima flag raising to signal that the fight has turned in our favor for good. The American people will have to understand and accept that little things like a neighborhood council finding a contract garbage collector, and the re-opening of an elementary school, represent the end state of a community’s recovery and therefore signal battlefield victory. Our leaders in Washington need to teach us that that’s what victory in Iraq looks like. Our press needs to show us that that’s what our troops are doing in between the brief and often bloody firefights, but instead it’s busy picking up where the insurgencies leave off in delegitimizing the US mission and the Iraqi government. Peaceful, secure communities have no interest in the militias and despise the al Qaeda terrorists and insurgents. Beyond the fighting of Haifa Street, the war in Iraq will be won or lost by injecting good government in place of Saddam’s republic of fear. Which is why liberals, if they understood the ground realities of the war in Iraq, should embrace it instead of incessantly demanding retreat and defeat.

But liberals, and an increasing number of moderates and conservatives, don’t understand this war and apparently they never will. Their aversion to the use of American power, their Bush Deranged-blindness, or their weariness over a war for which they have sacrificed precisely nothing at all, or the administration’s own inconsistent defense of the fight, or the media’s campaign of half-truths and whole lies, will have precipitated a defeat that could have been avoided. With the full complement of surge troops in place for just over a month now, and with signs of progress building in Anbar and Diyala, the Beltway is in a frenzy to retreat from Iraq. The tragedy that will unfold will have lots of fathers, from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refusing to listen to General David Petraeus’ reports, to the Iraqis themselves perhaps awakening too late for their own good, to the Bush administration’s own naive views that led to premature democratization of a country that has proven itself unready for American style self-government, to the unchecked Iranian involvement with insurgents and militias across Iraq. Officers like Stacy Bare and Steve Miska will have risked all and given Iraq its best and perhaps last chance to avoid catastrophe. Tragically, if things continue on their present course, their political leaders, Iraq’s political leaders and people, and the American people themselves, will have failed them.

Note: I wrote most of this piece while Michelle & I were staying at Camp Justice in Baghdad back in January, but for a variety of reasons never published it. CPT Bare has since left the Army, but there are many more like him serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sadly, Khadimiyah has taken a turn for the worse since January, as Jaish al-Mahdi forces have become more active in the area, bringing their sectarian violence with them.