Politics & Policy

An Opening

Banner days in Iraq don’t happen very often, but yesterday was one. The news that a U.S. air strike had killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, combined with the selection of consensus choices to head the defense and interior ministries, provides a dose of hope on both the security and the political front. Supporters of the war are constantly looking for signs of a strategic turning point in Iraq, and some discern one in these events. Perhaps. But the developments definitely provide an opening for President Bush to redouble our efforts before Iraq slides further into chaos, and before declining American popular support forecloses spending more blood or treasure there.

Zarqawi’s death is particularly welcome because it comes at such a distressing time in Iraq. According to the Pentagon’s report to Congress on Iraqi stability and security, attacks between February and May of this year were higher than in any previous period over the last two years. Total causalities, including both Iraqis and Americans, are up. In March 2006, car bombs were at their highest level since October 2005. Sectarian violence is up since the attack on Golden Mosque in February. All of this makes for a deteriorating security picture, even as oil production and electricity generation are flat.

This is why, prior to the latest news, some hawks inside and outside the administration were beginning privately to use the “D” word, defeat. That would be a strategic catastrophe for the United States and a political calamity for the Bush administration. Oddly, the U.S. government has not been giving the war a 100-percent effort, even though Bush shows every indication of understanding the stakes in Iraq. To take one example that military writer Thomas X. Hammes pointed out the other day, the administration has long talked of creating 16 provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq–specialists in all the important areas of civil affairs who would assist Iraqis at the regional level. Such teams have been a success in Afghanistan, but only four have been created in Iraq.

When it comes to U.S. military strategy, it is not always clear whether the first priority is “clear, sweep, and hold”–i.e., sweeping insurgents out of a given area, then leaving enough American or Iraqi forces that they don’t come back–or simply getting American troops off the streets and back into their bases. Sometimes the Bush administration gives the impression that, in light of the unpopularity of the war at the moment, it wants to tiptoe in Iraq, doing a bare minimum that might secure victory if everything breaks the right way. This may seem to minimize political risk, but it actually increases it. If things don’t break the right way–and they often don’t–it means courting defeat. And there is no unobtrusive, politically painless way to lose a war. People will notice.

The killing of Zarqawi and the completion of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government is a fortunate confluence that allows a new departure in Iraq. Zarqawi’s killing will make the American public think progress is possible in a way that a recitation of optimistic statistics never will. The White House believes–correctly, in our view–that the portion of the American public that is persuadable on Iraq will listen to a message based on the argument that loss in Iraq will bring dire consequences, and that the U.S. is constantly adjusting based on conditions rather than mindlessly “staying the course.” A redoubling of effort now could be sold in these terms, and it would be natural to couple it with the completion of Maliki’s government.

In a new departure, it should become obvious that the rest of the U.S. government cares as much about success in Iraq as whichever 130,000 American troops happen to be there at any time. Gen. Barry McCaffrey’s latest memo on Iraq contains a devastating critique of this lack of focus. “The bottom line,” he writes, “is that only the CIA and the U.S. Armed Forces are at war.” Among other things, more resources and personnel should be poured into an attempt to establish in Iraq something like the intelligence superiority that Israelis enjoy in the West Bank, and into accelerating the training and equipping of Iraqi security forces.

Most important, we should work with Maliki on a plan to secure Baghdad, the linchpin of Iraq, and be willing to face the fact that he probably doesn’t have the forces to do it on his own. The training of the Iraqi army has been a success story, but the police–so important in any counter-insurgency–are a disaster. They routinely torture and murder, and, at the moment, are part of the problem. If Maliki, in these conditions, says he needs, say, another 20,000 U.S. troops to finally secure Baghdad, Bush shouldn’t hesitate.

This would bring howls and comparisons to the escalation in Vietnam. But we suspect the public would be willing to swallow it, if such an increase in troops levels is persuasively linked to a plan for victory. The comparisons to Vietnam are more aptly made about the status quo, which has featured steadily ebbing domestic support and an arguably decaying situation on the ground. In sheer political terms, Bush is probably better off taking action–even what seems a risky action in an election year–than “staying the course” with the same old resolute, reassuring talk.

It is true, as we have often said, that the Iraqi political process is crucial to victory. But it is a necessary, not sufficient, condition for success. The mainstream Sunni embrace of legitimate Iraqi politics should eventually drain the insurgency of some of its power, but the timeline could be long. With his attempted crackdown in militia-infested Basra and his release of low-level Sunni detainees, Maliki appears to have the right idea–getting a handle on the security situation while pursuing reconciliation with the Sunnis. But if he has the will to exert his control, he might not have the means, and that is where we could still have a decisive influence.

To paraphrase Emerson, events have too often been in the saddle in Iraq lately. We should work to change that while we still can. The killing of Zarqawi was one important victory; now we should do what’s necessary to create more of them.

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