Defeatism Is No Winning Strategy
Dems and Iraq.


John O’Sullivan

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada declared last week that the war in Iraq was ‘‘lost.’’ Alas, the leader of the Senate Democrats lacked the courage of his defeatism. When he came under attack, he promptly corrected himself: The war, he said, was going to be lost if President Bush’s current policies were not changed.

But this was a backflip, too.

Back in 2005, as historian Arthur Herman points out in the April issue of Commentary, Reid was among those senators who wanted to send more U.S. troops to Iraq to carry out exactly the kind of counter-insurgency warfare that Gen. David Petraeus is now waging in the ‘‘surge.’’

Reid is representing his Senate colleagues and the wider Democratic party in his confusions. They genuinely believe the war is lost.

They argue that the U.S. ‘‘occupation’’ both causes and prolongs the Iraqi ‘‘civil war.’’ They want to withdraw U.S. troops as soon as possible. But they don’t want to get the blame for an American defeat and for what might follow.

Many ordinary Americans seem to share these hesitant opinions, according to the opinion polls. But are they correct?

Since the ‘‘surge’’ got under way, several distinguished and cold-eyed observers have visited Iraq. Almost all of them — reflecting also a change in media reporting of the conflict — admit that the surge seems to be producing results.

For instance, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the former drug czar, after a survey that was sharply critical of past failures, civil and military, nonetheless reached this broad conclusion: ‘‘In my judgment, we can still achieve our objective of: a stable Iraq, at peace with its neighbors, not producing weapons of mass destruction and fully committed to a law-based government.’’

That would constitute a clear-cut victory. It is far from certain that the United States will attain such a victory. What is plain, however, is that we can hold off indefinitely the defeat that some Democrats think we have already sustained. The United States is the dominant power in Iraq. In conjunction with our allies in the Iraqi government, we can remain in Iraq and control its government for as long as we wish. No combination of insurgent forces can possibly drive us out. We have not ‘‘lost.’’

As Arthur Herman points out, however, in his Commentary essay, the French were in an equally strong position in the Algerian war. Indeed, it was a French strategic thinker who first devised the successful counter-insurgency strategy that Petraeus is now using with success in the surge. What defeated France was French public opinion — persuaded by its left-wing parties — that the war had been lost and so no more French soldiers should die in pointless struggle. The French duly left, and those Algerians who had supported them were massacred. Some were forced to swallow their medals before being shot or buried alive.

But won’t Iraqis settle their differences peacefully after a U.S. departure, as for instance presidential contender John Edwards maintains? Listen to the testimony of John Agresto, an American academic, who from pure idealism went out to Iraq to help reform its educational system. In his superb new book, Mugged by Reality, Agresto is scathing about the failure of America’s good intentions in Iraq. He points out that establishing a stable government in a broken society is a task that requires intimate knowledge of the society — and many years of dedicated effort. He is scornful of the quick-fix-to-democracy approach of too many Americans and of the neoconservatives in particular.

But he is much more scathing about those who think that an American ‘‘scuttle’’ would make matters better: ‘‘ . . . the truth is that our leaving would not give peace a chance but would give anarchy, mayhem and full-scale civil war its best chance.’’

Will we give Iraq the time it needs, however?

On that the most interesting testimony comes from the distinguished British military historian and commentator Sir Max Hastings, also just returned from Iraq. Hastings is a longstanding critic of the Iraq war, of Bush, of Prime Minister Tony Blair, and of the neoconservatives. But he recognizes two new realities — that defeat would be a strategic disaster for both the West and ordinary Iraqis, and that the surge, brilliantly conceived and led by Petraeus, is producing real if partial victories. He remains pessimistic, however, simply because he thinks that the surge will not be given time to work. That may, alas, be right.

If it is right, who will have refused that precious commodity to America’s men at arms?


– This first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times and is reprinted with permission.