You hardly qualify as a retired general these days unless you have written an op-ed piece demanding Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation. One of Rummy’s alleged sins was not providing enough troops to secure postwar Iraq. The debate over troop levels will rage for years; it is both characteristically American and somewhat beside the point.

Obviously, if we had it to do over again, we would send more troops in the hopes that sheer numbers would head off our problems. But to think that higher troop levels would have been a magic bullet is to indulge a very American faith in the power of mass to overcome anything. In Iraq, we have faced a delicate political and cultural problem that requires finesse above all – finesse dependent on a fine-tuned understanding of an alien society.

Instead of a backward-looking debate about the number of post-invasion troops in Iraq, we should be having a forward-looking one about how we can attain the requisite cultural understanding for any long-term effort to transform the Middle East. We need a good dose of muscular multiculturalism, not in the cause of undermining the American nation (the radical left’s favorite use for it), but of advancing one of its most important foreign-policy goals.

President Bush’s anthropologically simplistic rhetoric is counterproductive in this regard, since he essentially posits that everyone around the world is the same. A key intellectual failing in the war-planning was the belief that Iraqis are basically like us. In all the talk about how sophisticated Iraqis were, no one mentioned virginity examinations and how women could be shot by relatives outside a clinic if the result was wrong, as related in George Packer’s book “The Assassins’ Gate.” Nor did anyone dwell on the importance of sheiks and imams, the powerbrokers that American troops have had to learn so much about on the fly.

Bush recently held up the city of Tal Afar as an example of a successful U.S. anti-insurgency campaign. It was led by Colonel HR McMaster, and based on U.S. troops gaining an intimate knowledge of the town. Not coincidentally, a few years ago McMaster wrote a monograph attacking the notion that mere technology or firepower can smooth away the human element of warfare, with its “political, social and cultural factors.”

McMaster’s approach takes time and intellectual energy, much more than many people will ever want to devote to understanding rival tribal sheiks. As Packer writes in The New Yorker, the U.S. military is increasingly employing the opposite strategy of holing up in big bases where no one has anything to do with Iraqis.

Historian Niall Ferguson might have been correct when he urged the application of U.S. power in far-reaching corners of the globe, but wondered whether we had the right stuff to pull it off: “America’s brightest and best aspire not to govern Mesopotamia but to manage MTV; not to rule the Hejaz but to run a hedge fund. Unlike their British counterparts of a century ago, who left the elite British universities with an overtly imperial ethos, the letters ambitious young Americans would like to see after their names are CEO, not CBE [Commander of the Order of the British Empire].”

The military does have foreign-area officers, experts in a given region who, like one profiled in The Wall Street Journal, can speak Arabic with a Yemeni accent and hold long conversations with Bedouins about the joys of the drug qat. But there were only 145 foreign-area officers specializing in the Middle East as of last fall, according to the Journal.

The Pentagon at least realizes the shortfall. Its new Quadrennial Defense Review says, “The Department must foster a level of understanding and cultural intelligence about the Middle East and Asia comparable to that developed about the Soviet Union during the Cold War.” The old adage is, “Know thy enemy.” We’d also better know the people we want to be our friends.

Rich Lowry is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at: [email protected]