In any case, the provincial elections occurred two weeks ago, were widely reported to be fair, and resulted in a crushing defeat for the sectarian parties. The Sadrists were among the biggest losers. In a not-so-subtle dig at Ricks, Post columnist Charles Krauthammer observed: “All this barely pierced the consciousness of official Washington. After all, it fundamentally contradicts the general establishment/media narrative of Iraq as ‘fiasco.’ ”
As General Keane points out, “the facts don’t even come close to supporting the view that the surge has failed politically.” He explains:
Insurgencies end in two ways favorably. Either they just leave the battlefield, never to be seen again, or they come into the political process. The latter is the most favorable outcome, and that is what has happened here. The Shiite government has allowed provincial elections to take place which permitted the Sunnis to take control of four provinces. That is a huge political success for Iraq. Iranian-backed parties were defeated politically in the provincial elections, as were all the religious parties. To suggest that politically Iraq is going in the wrong direction misses the obvious facts. They are evolving into a more representative state, devolving power, with more power-sharing. It’s clearly political reconciliation.
The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government has now started paying the salaries of some 70,000 Sunnis of the Awakening militias, many of them former insurgents with the blood of Shiites on their hands. An amnesty law has led to the release of thousands of Sunni detainees, and a reformed de-Baathification law has opened the doors of government to Sunnis. After 35 years of suffering under Sunni oppression, and all the years since 2003 in which Sunni terrorists kidnapped, tortured, and murdered innocent Shiites by the tens of thousands, the Shiite government has responded by extending a hand of reconciliation, understandably grudging, perhaps, but also surprisingly generous.
During a recent episode of Meet the Press, host David Gregory asked Ricks to respond to President Bush’s repeated insistence that “the Middle East is better off without Saddam Hussein.” Ricks had this to say:
Let me tell you my worry about that. We have a bunch of Iraqi generals out there who are not in any way people who subscribe to our values. The fewer American troops we have there, the more they can behave the way they want to. And what you’re going to see is a lot of little new Saddams. [. . .] The difference is, we trained and armed them.
The atrocities of Saddam’s regime, no less than the unspeakable sectarian crimes committed after the U.S. toppled him, redound to the shame of the Iraqi people, just as Germans’ crimes in the Holocaust and on the Russian front would leave them burdened with war guilt for decades. But in the sort of breezy stereotype that comes so easily to Ricks, there is something more — a dehumanized view of the Iraqi people that takes the free will out of the most ghoulish crimes, that reduces those crimes almost to zoological predictability, hereditary rather than purchased. In effect, Ricks equates the long-suffering Iraqis with their worst oppressor — a tyrant of extraordinary criminality and sadism — as if they were all the same.
Open contempt for the Iraqi people has been perhaps the ugliest face of opposition to the Iraq war, motivated no doubt partly by a visceral refusal to acknowledge that anything positive has been born of America’s intervention in Iraq. But to those of us who have observed Iraqi and American soldiers living together in combat outposts, the palpable absorption of American military culture by Iraqi soldiers and the lasting bonds of friendship between Iraqis and Americans are profoundly moving and hopeful signs. And the practical consequences are not trivial. “One of the things that people don’t realize about the surge,” says Keane, “is that we did side-by-side operations as a matter of course. By osmosis, the performance of the Iraqis improved dramatically.”
At a more basic level, the mission of bringing democracy to Iraq remains vital and keeps making progress. Keane reflects:
What you see when you go to political meetings in Iraq is young people who are incredibly passionate about the possibilities of democracy, and participating and running for office. They think they can base their society on meritocracy instead of patronage. And the engine for all of that is democracy. Iraqis think that the reason that Americans are so prosperous is that they’ve had democracy for 300 years, and they think that they can achieve the same, and they are extraordinarily passionate about it. So when you listen to their idealism and their passion about democracy, it strikes a chord and it gives you a sense of their character.
Ricks portrays General Petraeus as uninterested in the democracy mission, embracing the more realist, “minimalist” goal of stabilizing Iraq and mitigating the fiasco. Though one suspects that Ricks is again projecting his own view, it must be said that Petraeus’s brief is military — security, reconstruction, local governance, etc. National political issues such as long-range democracy-promotion are the province of the ambassador, and Amb. Ryan Crocker has not been a “minimalist.” In a briefing last June, Crocker described “what you might almost call a virtuous circle going on.” He talked about the Sunni Awakening reaching Baghdad. “As al-Qaeda was run out of Sunni neighborhoods, by Sunnis in many cases, Shia started asking questions about exactly why they needed Shia militias around running their affairs,” he said. That’s when support for the militias began to erode:
That kind of shift in opinion broadly among Iraqis against a backdrop of diminishing violence changed the political climate. And it’s — you know, it’s no coincidence that you finally begin to see movement toward the end of the year and carrying on into the winter and spring of this year legislative achievements in the Council of Representatives that they just could not get to in the previous climate. There — the diminishment of violence led to an improved climate across sectarian lines, which led to an ability of Council of Representatives members to start to make the tradeoffs that produced the kinds of legislative achievements that we saw January, February, and March with the amnesty, provincial powers, the budget. These were classic political deals and it was that changed climate that made it possible. The other development that we saw, of course, was an increasing capability of the Iraqi Government and Iraqi security forces.
Crocker went on to describe the long-term strategic-framework agreement with the U.S., and the coming provincial elections, noting that they “are going to be extremely important in Iraq’s development as a stable representative democracy.”
IRAN’S BIG WIN?
Another pillar of the Iraq war media narrative that is prominently showcased in The Gamble is the idea that Iran has been the biggest winner in America’s “adventure” in Iraq. In fairness, a strategic opening for Iran was one of the foreseeable risks of invading Iraq. Saddam saw the Islamic revolution in Iran as a mortal threat and was desperate to prevent the extension of that revolution into Iraq’s Shiite population, fighting a brutal eight-year war to prevent it. Toppling the Sunni dictatorship meant removing a virulently anti-Iranian force from leadership in Iraq and replacing it with majority rule by Iran’s fellow Shiites.
But five years on, examples of where Iran has been able to turn this opening to its advantage are difficult to find. If you press proponents of the “Iran wins” theory, you get only vague assertions such as one finds in The Gamble: Iran has extended its influence throughout the Iraqi government, is nebulously bankrolling a host of Shiite factions, etc.
A few facts suffice to dispel the theory. The only place in the world where Iran has been able to export its revolution is Lebanon, where the Shiite Hezbollah explicitly adheres to the principle of vilayet e fakih, the “Mandate of the Wise.” This principle, which calls for the centralization of all political and religious authority in the hands of religious leaders, is a cardinal doctrine of the Qum Madrassa in Iran, where the Ayatollah Khomeini centered his revolution. Lebanon’s Hezbollah recognizes the ultimate political authority of the mullahs in Teheran, who have armed Hezbollah to the teeth with weapons more powerful than those available to the Lebanese army. Lebanon is littered from end to end with yellow posters that depict Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah floating next to a likeness of Khomeini.