Is it possible to win a war on the ground, and lose it in Congress?
Perhaps. In his Senate-floor speech Monday, Senator Richard Lugar announced, “In my judgment, our course in Iraq has lost contact with our vital national security interests in the Middle East and beyond…The prospects that the current ‘surge’ strategy will succeed in the way originally envisioned by the president are very limited within the short period framed by our own domestic-policy debate.”
The Indiana Republican endorses a downsizing and redeployment of the U.S. military mission in Iraq as an essential precondition to reasserting these vital national-security interests, which he defines thus:
1) To prevent any piece of Iraq from being a terrorist safe haven;
2) To prevent Iraqi sectarian violence from spilling over into any other parts of the region;
3) To prevent Iranian domination of the region; and
4) To prevent a loss of U.S. credibility in the region.
All four of these goals are being advanced, some of them dramatically, by the surge strategy of Gen. David Petraeus — the very strategy that Sen. Lugar would scrap in favor of “downsizing and redeployment.”
The principal accomplishment of the surge to date is solidifying the “Anbar Awakening,” the significance of which has been under-reported by the media and ill-understood by the public. If any piece of territory in Iraq qualified as a “terrorist safe haven,” it was bloody Anbar. This province of little over 1 million people — 4.5 percent of Iraq’s population — has accounted for 34.6 percent of U.S. casualties. (Insurgent activity in Baghdad, with five times the population, has accounted for fewer troop deaths both as a percent (29.5 percent) and in absolute numbers (1,052).
The virtual extinction of the insurgency in the province — a victory that I was privileged to witness first-hand — represented not some momentary quirk of tribal alliances, but a diligent application of the revised tactics that coalition forces have implemented under skilled, battle-proven officers and Gen. Petraeus. These tactics include meticulous census-taking of persons and vehicles; skilled, persistent diplomacy with tribal leaders; incorporation of local intelligence; constant foot patrols in the residential areas from platoon and squad sized outposts; and persistent perimeter control of areas cleared and held.
Even Lugar acknowledges the effectiveness of these tactics. He stated, “I do not doubt the assessments of military commanders that there has been some progress in security…We should attempt to preserve initiatives that have shown promise, such as engaging Sunni groups that are disaffected with the extreme tactics and agenda of al Qaeda in Iraq.”
But it is hard to see how redeployment to Kuwait, or the Kurdish provinces, or hunkering down in large bases in the outlying desert will preserve this progress, let alone extend it.
Lugar’s second and third national-security goals are inextricably interlinked. The fingerprints of Iran are everywhere evident in Iraq’s sectarian violence — and on both sides. Iranian munitions are wending their way to al Qaeda operatives, even as rogue Shiite militias receive training and arms from Iranian military intelligence.
The explosion of sectarian violence in late 2005 was not an indigenous development. The principle instigators — al Qaeda, Iran, and to a lesser extent Syria — promoted it to prevent the establishment of a stable democratic regime in Iraq, and to drive us from the region. If they succeed in Iraq, they will export of these tactics to other parts of the Middle East.
It is delusional to believe that a regional spillover of sectarian violence can be averted by allowing such violence to fester in Iraq. At the same time, sectarian violence is not an innate feature of Iraq: Iraqis of different sects and ethnicities lived peacefully together in Baghdad for centuries — often in the same neighborhoods, and in the same tribes. Even today, it is not rare to for a Sunni head of household, driven from his home by a threat of violence, to ask his Shi’ite neighbor to watch his family’s property for him until he can return.
The force, and the tactics, that can accomplish the first three of Lugar’s policy goals is already deployed. The senator’s proposed drawdown would undermine those goals, and thus assure the loss of U.S. credibility in the region.
As a replacement for the surge tactics that have crippled the insurgency in its most potent nest, Lugar offers a single paragraph to describe what redeployment should look like. “Numerous locations for temporary or permanent military bases have been suggested,” he told Congress, “including Kuwait or other nearby states, the Kurdish territories, or defensible locations in Iraq outside of urban areas.”
There is little to criticize here — literally. The senator expended more words on the national-security significance of corn-fed ethanol, grown in the Midwest, than on the nature of the “Plan B” redeployment. This is the same man who solemnly warned us, “In 2003, we witnessed the costs that came with insufficient planning.”
Lugar bases his plea for downsizing and redeployment on three premises: the state of the Iraqi government, the stress of the war on our military, and the “constraints of our domestic political timetable.”
The first two are canards. Dysfunction within the Iraqi government should take a back seat to the U.S. interest in stabilizing the regime. Yes, there are factions in the Iraqi parliament that want Iranian domination; yes, there are factions that will plunder the Iraqi treasury. But there are also factions that want stabilization and that look to us for protection and arbitration. We are ill-served when we let the former frame our public debate.
Much was made in the American press, for instance, of the “anti-fence” law introduced by the Sadrists during the early phases of the surge. Lugar cites it. He is blissfully unaware that Baghdad residents build their own security walls in response to neighborhood violence. They do it because it works, rendering checkpoints effective in blocking terrorist infiltration. We do it too — only better.
The Sadrists, whose militias would “cleanse” certain Baghdad neighborhoods of Sunnis, scored a major PR victory with American civil libertarians through a legislative act that most Baghdadis regarded as absurd.
Lugar also advances a truism, that the engagement in Iraq stresses our military personnel. War opponents often raise this issue, so easily graphed in Power Point presentations. But I saw what no Power Point can demonstrate: The quality of combat power we bring to bear has improved from 2005 (my previous stint as an embed) to 2007. I was stunned by the number of infantrymen who are reenlisting, maintaining a core of corporate knowledge on how to fight this war. The young men coming into the infantry today know what they are getting into, and are eminently capable of meeting the challenge.
This leaves Lugar’s third, and most potent objection to a continuation of the “surge”: “Some will argue,” he told the Senate, “that political timelines should always be subordinated to military necessity, but that is unrealistic in a democracy.”
Lugar is saying, “Because we lack the will to win, let us make a decision not to win, and thus reassert our will.” This is particularly untimely now, when our military has accomplished one of the most stunning successes of this prolonged struggle.
Alexander Hamilton’s analysis on much the same question, which preceded Lugar’s caveat by more than two centuries, is worth noting as well. Describing the subordinate role of Congress to the executive in foreign policy, Hamilton wrote in Federalist 75:
“Accurate and comprehensive knowledge of foreign politics; a steady and systematic adherence to the same views; a nice and uniform sensibility to national character; decision, secrecy, and dispatch, are incompatible with the genius of a body so variable and so numerous.”
The Petraeus surge, authorized by the executive branch, was not “improvised.” Its fundamental planning dates from early in Donald Rumsfeld’s stint as secretary of Defense, where it was developed as a contingency plan should a “light footprint” approach fail. It deserves its day in the sun.
And its recent success should not be held against it.
— J.D. Johannes, a board member of Americas Majority Foundation and has just returned from a three-month trip to Iraq filming a follow-up documentary to his 2006 work Outside The Wire.