The news is not that American combat troops withdrew from Iraqi cities. The news is that American combat troops withdrew from Iraqi cities in victory — rather than in defeat.
Two years ago at this time, few in the foreign-policy establishment considered that outcome possible. Some did not even see it as desirable. There were those who believed that the conflict in Iraq was “unwinnable,” that America had met its match on the hot and dusty streets of 21st-century Mesopotamia. Others thought Americans needed a Vietnam-like refresher course about the futility of the use of U.S. military force anywhere in the world.
The Baker/Hamilton Commission deliberated long and hard and then cobbled together an “exit strategy” that was intended to make defeat more graceful while spreading the blame on a bipartisan basis. (Full disclosure: I was one of Baker/Hamilton’s “expert advisers,” but I was among a tiny minority of vocal dissenters.)
Two years ago at this time, MoveOn.org and associated groups mobilized for what they called the “Iraq Summer,” an elaborate campaign to put pressure on members of Congress to cut off funding for the mission in Iraq. They made little progress despite numerous congressional votes.
Toward the end of the summer, in frustration I suspect, MoveOn took a full-page ad in the New York Times calling Gen. David Petraeus “Gen. Betray-Us.” The charge of treachery was based on his implementation of the “surge,” a strategy dramatically different from that implemented when U.S. troops first went into Iraq, a strategy based on counterinsurgency (i.e. live among the local population and protect them) rather than counterterrorism (i.e. hunker down in “forward operating bases” and occasionally venture out in search of insurgents to kill). I think it’s safe to say that MoveOn’s scurrilous attack on a U.S. combat commander did not make most Americans feel warm and fuzzy about the group, its allies, and its financial supporters.
Taking them on, quietly but with enormous determination, was an informal coalition of veterans’ and military-family groups, pro-defense and conservative think tanks, advocacy organizations and online news services. They worked hard to (1) inform the public about the progress in Iraq and (2) persuade lawmakers not to surrender in Washington so long as American troops had a chance to prevail against the militant Islamists in Iraq. (More full disclosure: I participated in that effort.)
The mainstream media were astonishingly reluctant to report on the successes Petraeus and his troops were achieving. Whenever possible, newspaper and television reporters avoided naming our principal enemies in Iraq: al-Qaeda and militias backed by Iran. To do so would have been inconsistent with the preferred narrative: that America’s presence in Iraq was responsible for all and any violence, that this violence should be seen only as a civil war, that America’s involvement had been a “fiasco” from the start and nothing could change that.
To this day, many in the media still beat this drum. On July 4th, Anthony Shadid wrote on the front page of the Washington Post that the U.S. invaded Iraq in “a war of its own choosing, buoyed by grand ambitions and perhaps folly.” Iraq, he added, has since “journeyed away from the peaks of invasion, occupation and civil war.” He makes no mention of al-Qaeda, its recruitment of foreign jihadis, and its deployment of them as suicide bombers in a systematic effort to inflame sectarian strife in Iraq. He makes no mention of Iran, its role in training, arming, and instructing militias that have killed both Iraqis and Americans. Not a word.
In response to the American withdrawal, expect what’s left of al-Qaeda in Iraq to attempt to slaughter as many Iraqis as possible, with as much accompanying media attention as possible. Iran’s rulers are distracted just now, busy beating, jailing, and in some cases hanging those who dare protest the election they most recently rigged. Still, they are likely to take a few minutes to prompt their proxies to test the mettle of the Iraqi government and its security forces, to find out how much they’ve learned from the “invaders” who have been teaching them self-defense, while also helping them build sewers, schools, and clinics.
However that turns out, the fact will remain: American troops have withdrawn from Iraq’s cities having successfully completed their mission. In the midst of an international conflict — it used to be called, misleadingly, the Global War on Terrorism; it’s now called, incoherently, an “overseas contingency operation” — both al-Qaeda and Iran have been beaten on a battlefield in the heart of the Middle East.
One might think that would be a major news story. One would be wrong. The mainstream media have other stories to cover, other priorities — Michael Jackson’s death and Sarah Palin stepping down as Alaska’s governor top among them.
Donald Rumsfeld, while serving as secretary of defense, famously said: “You go to war with the army you have.” That underestimated the adaptability and ingenuity of America’s military. Had he said, “You go to war with the media you have,” he would have been spot on.