Pity Gen. David Petraeus, the military commander in Iraq. Before Memorial Day, his September progress report from Baghdad was expected to be a turning point in the Iraq war. By Labor Day, it looked like most of the other turning points in this strange war: one where nothing turned.
Partisans worked through the summer to show that nothing as trivial as the field commander's assessment would influence their views. In July, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean announced, "We do not need to wait until September" to know that President Bush's "surge" strategy had failed. In August, Bush's allies shot back that the strategy was plainly succeeding.
People who knew better than to listen to partisans paid more attention to a raft of August progress reports: a partially declassified National Intelligence Estimate; a leaked draft report [PDF] from the Government Accountability Office; early accounts of a congressionally commissioned study of Iraqi security forces; and reports from members of Congress and think-tank experts who traveled to Iraq.
The assessments disagreed on some details, such as how much Iraq's security forces are improving, if at all. Taken together, however, they painted a coherent picture, which Petraeus's report seemed unlikely to change.
- Tactically, which is to say militarily, the troop surge is making headway. Partly thanks to Sunni tribes joining with U.S. forces against Al Qaeda, and partly because the Pentagon is devoting more resources to a better plan of attack, security has improved in Iraq's contested central regions. But:
- Iraq is still a dangerous and volatile place, far from stable. Sectarian militias, foreign terrorists, and domestic insurgents remain potent; violence remains unacceptably high. And:
- Strategically, which is to say politically, the surge is working much less well. As the National Intelligence Estimate summarized, "Broadly accepted political compromises required for sustained security, long-term political progress, and economic development are unlikely to emerge unless there is a fundamental shift in the factors driving Iraqi political and security developments."
- Absent a political settlement, Iraq's government and security forces are too incompetent, sectarian, and corrupt to stabilize the country without continued large-scale U.S. intervention.
- The troop surge is not sustainable much beyond next spring unless combat tours are extended, which would strain the Army to or near the breaking point. Pre-surge forces could be maintained a while longer but not indefinitely.
In sum: The surge has temporarily stabilized what had become a downward spiral and, by doing so, has bought some time. But not much time, and the Iraqis have done little with it.
Here's a startling headline: "More Troops, Better General, and Smarter Strategy Yield Some Results." It would have been surprising if the troop surge had _not_ yielded tactical improvements. (To the extent that the surge is working, it gives a depressing taste of how much better this war could have gone if Bush had provided adequate manpower and leadership four years ago.) The question has always been whether tactical progress—suppression of the conflict—could be translated into strategic gains, in the form of political stability.
Partisans draw opposite conclusions by focusing on different parts of the picture. Bush and his Republican allies use tactical military success to argue that politicians should not undermine the surge just when it is showing some momentum. War opponents and their Democratic allies use the absence of strategic gains to argue that the surge is an exercise in futility.
The problem is that both sides are right. The car has stopped rolling backward, which is good. But it has yet to find a road forward, which is not good. To put the point more precisely, the surge appears to be doing better at peacekeeping than pacifying.
Pacification uses military force to reshape a contested political landscape so as to create conditions for peace on favorable terms—usually by turning the balance of power decisively in favor of one faction or another. Pacification is what Bush still thinks he is doing in Iraq: turning the balance of power in favor of Sunni and Shiite moderates.
Peacekeeping, by contrast, merely interposes force between parties to a conflict. Instead of rebalancing the power, it suspends the fighting. When peacekeepers leave, fighting tends to break out again.
War opponents believe that, regardless of what Bush thinks, what he is doing in Iraq is peacekeeping—at an exorbitant cost, if not counterproductively. In July, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, a leading Democratic presidential candidate, told the Associated Press bluntly that preventing potential genocide in Iraq is not a good enough reason to stick with Bush's policy. "When you have a conflict like this," he said, "military efforts and protective forces can play an important role, especially if they're under an international mandate as opposed to simply a U.S. mandate. But you can't solve the underlying problem at the end of a barrel of a gun."
In a speech last month to a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, Bush warned of a humanitarian calamity if the U.S. were to leave Iraq in turmoil. But he must know that not even Republicans will sustain a massive and open-ended U.S. commitment to peacekeeping in Iraq. In last month's VFW speech, the president decried the humanitarian cost of America's failure in Vietnam; revealingly, however, he stopped short of suggesting that the United States should have stayed in Vietnam on humanitarian grounds.
For what an amateur's view is worth, I tend to believe, with Obama, that the war has devolved into de facto peacekeeping. I see little evidence that Sunnis would accept any political offer that the Shiite majority would abide by, and vice versa. My reading of the evidence is that Iraqi fundamentals are more conducive to war than peace, and that there is not much the United States can do to change that.
Even so, what's the Democrats' hurry to end the surge? U.S. combat fatalities are tragic, but withdrawing in the midst of an escalating war could bring even more of them. Nor is it anything like obvious that, as Obama told AP, America's presence is making Iraq more dangerous for Iraqis by attracting terrorists and encouraging irresponsible politics. As Bush told the VFW, those who said that the people of Vietnam and (especially) Cambodia would be better off under Communism were wrong.
Here is something that Democrats might want to think about before rushing to shut down the surge: If they managed to ram through a withdrawal or timetable on party lines this fall, when most Republicans think the surge is working, they would be flayed for a generation as the party that seized certain defeat from the jaws of possible victory. For years to come, Republicans would insist that Democratic pusillanimity emboldened jihadism, an ugly narrative that some are already rehearsing. (Last month Peter Wehner, who recently left the White House for a post at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, sent out an e-mail pointing to jihadists' claim that America is a "weak horse" that runs when bloodied. He continued, "If the critics have their way and deny Gen. Petraeus the time he needs to help bring about a decent outcome in Iraq, the jihadists will be right.")
Fortunately, without Republican support, Democrats can't pull the plug or impose a strict timetable this fall. And they don't need to. The war is on a timetable already, one dictated by military constraints and political reality. "I think everyone understands that, by a year from now, we've got to be a good deal smaller than we are right now," Petraeus said last month. By this time next year, Bush's reluctance to scale up the Army to match his rhetoric will have caught up with him.
The military schedule synchronizes with the political one. By this time next year, if Iraq has not turned the corner, a good guess is that the Republican presidential nominee will be facing a choice: Promise to wind down the war, or lose the election. Whichever choice the nominee makes, the die will be cast.
Democrats have every reason to be angry at Bush's evasion of political accountability for the mess he has made in Iraq. Democrats, Republicans, and all other Americans have every reason to be angry at Bush for making the mess to begin with. They have every reason to feel about him the way the wildlife of Prince William Sound felt about Joseph Hazelwood, the captain of the Exxon Valdez.
But anger does not justify impatience. If Petraeus says he needs more time, he should get it. If he fails, a course correction won't be long in coming. The 22nd Amendment has seen to that.
© Copyright 2007 National Journal
Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal and a frequent contributor to Reason. The article was originally published by National Journal.