Now that America has become deeply involved in the fate of 26 million Iraqis, "are we going to fix it and make it better," asked Gen. Robert Magnus, assistant commandant of the United States Marines, "or have we decided that breaking it was the wrong thing in the first place?"
Success in Iraq, according to the general, will be the creation of a democracy that is not a replica of the American system, but one with an emphasis on the basics: law and order, human rights, a justice system, and treating neighboring nations in a civilized and stable fashion.
While speaking at a March 11 event at International House in University City, Magnus, one of the highest-ranking Jews in the American military, acknowledged that there is plenty of work still to be done, though he highlighted significant gains that have been made to date.
For example, regular Iraqi citizens who once backed the insurgents are less likely to do so now. "People are drying up around the insurgency," said Magnus, whose appearance was sponsored by the Global Interdependence Center.
He also lauded the improving security situation in the troubled country. In Al Anbar province, the number of bombings and attacks has dropped 90 percent, he said, noting that there is a powerful Sunni police force now in the region. The general recalled a recent visit to Ramadi where he was able to walk peacefully from a marketplace to the provincial palace, a feat that would have been treacherous just six months earlier.
"They would have armored me up with vehicles, and it would have been — no kidding — a running gun battle down that street," said Magnus, who noted that he was even able to hand out candy to children.
The general suggested that strengthening the Iraqi economy could go a long way toward improving security.
"If you don't go and get those young men jobs, then they go and take those hundred dollar bills [from terrorists] and dig holes in the ground and put bombs in them," he said.
The number of American troops in Iraq should decrease from 150,000 to 130,000 by the summer, said the general.
While Magnus said that the United States should not pull out until the Iraqis have the capability to run their government, he said he's confident they'll be able to rid their country of foreign terrorists.
"They will not let the foreigners take their society — don't you believe what anybody says. When they're all done and we end up leaving the country, they will kill every one of the Syrians, the Egyptians, the Saudis," he said.
A Brooklyn native, Magnus rose through the ranks to become a four-star general, making him the second-highest ranking Jewish member of the military. Gen. Norton A. Schwartz of the United States Air Force, who became a four-star general shortly before Magnus, is presently the highest-ranking Jew.
Magnus said that he has never faced anti-Semitism while serving, and said that the number of Jews in the military now is slightly below the number of Jews in the population at large.
Concerning the long-term situation in Iraq, Magnus said that the security apparatus in the country far exceeds the political infrastructure. The general did say that he thinks that Iraqi lawmakers are starting to understand what's expected of them.
"I think the politicians get it. They don't get it the way we get it, because they don't necessarily want to emulate what they see us do," he said. "But they do get that they're going to have to figure out how to live together."