Politics & Policy

The Lugar Effect

Senator Dick Lugar gave an Important Speech the other day. It is the speech we’ve been expecting to hear from some Republican worthy for some time now, the it’s-time-to-draw-down-in-Iraq speech. It is somewhat surprising that Lugar would give it before even waiting to see the result of the new operations that have just been undertaken in Iraq as part of the troop surge. But Lugar’s speech isn’t intended to bear any real connection to what’s happening in Iraq. It is instead a speech exquisitely attuned to Washington, and to the desire of many Republicans to minimize their commitment to the war before they sustain any more political damage from it.

Lugar says we have four strategic goals in the Middle East: preventing an al Qaeda safe haven in Iraq; keeping sectarian strife from destabilizing the region; checking Iranian ambitions in the region; and preserving our credibility. A draw-down of the sort advocated by Lugar would set back all of these goals.

Al Qaeda’s strategy in Iraq depends on stoking sectarian strife that radicalizes Iraqi politics, and thus drives the Sunnis into its arms and undermines the legitimacy and effectiveness of the central government. To the extent this happens, it has a better operating environment in Iraq. This is why an anti-al Qaeda strategy depends on tamping down the strife and securing the population. So, as we move into more and more of Baghdad, providing an evenhanded security force for all the population, al Qaeda undertakes spectacular bombings against Shia targets intended to bring the civil war again to a high boil. Sen. Lugar wants essentially to hand al Qaeda its objective.

As the civil war worsens, as it inevitably would without the extensive presence of U.S. troops, its regional consequences would grow rather than lessen; it would enhance Iran’s ability to interfere in Iraq; and it would demonstrate that the U.S. draw-down is what everyone would know it is anyway — an admission of defeat that calls into question our staying power and credibility. Lugar thus courts the consequences he says he want to avoid.

Many Republican senators nonetheless consider his speech a political masterstroke. They see a tide of pressure building for a total pullout in the fall and think Lugar has helped preempt it in favor his more limited draw-down. They misread the politics. Lugar’s speech — the importance of which will be magnified by adoring press coverage — will only strengthen the forces that want to get out. Rather than minimizing their political problems, Republicans have made them worse (maybe we should call it the Lugar Effect).

As always in this war, much depends on President Bush. There are those in his administration who probably welcome the Lugar speech. But George Bush is the president. If he holds firm, it’s going to be much harder for Republican senators to cut and run than they imagine. Will they really shove a troop drawdown or timetable down his throat if he resists it and argues that it would be tantamount to defeat?

The ultimate effect of the surge is still unknown, since only now is it getting underway in earnest. We are just beginning to undertake the simultaneous operations against al Qaeda in different parts of the country that the additional troops have made possible. In Baghdad, in those neighborhoods where we have set up outposts, security has improved. The political picture in Iraq remains disappointing. The country lacks strong, capable leadership at the top. But it was unrealistic to expect action on extremely difficult legislation — e.g. the oil law — immediately, on our timetable. A society ravaged by horrible violence is not going to see its politics turn around on the basis of glimmerings of more security; it will take real improvements in security, and time.

What we need in Iraq is not a shining liberal democracy, but a rough-and-ready political compact among the factions that keeps the country from being overrun by terrorists and militias and its citizens from being savagely murdered daily. If we continue to improve the security situation and beat back al Qaeda, that is attainable. But only if we have more patience than the politically nervous Republicans who are looking for the door.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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