The New York Times ran a piece Monday by two non-“neoconservatives” — Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack — arguing that the war in Iraq can be won. Is this indicative of some kind of mood change afoot? Could we really win this war? Could the rhetoric in Washington really change? National Review Online asked a group of experts.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr.
What are we to make of the fact that two of the Democratic party’s most knowledgeable critics of President Bush’s campaign to stabilize and democratize post-Saddam Iraq, Michael O’Hanlon and Robert Pollack, have publicly rejected the defeatists and called for a sustained U.S. effort there into 2008? The short answer is that they have the wit to recognize mistaken claims that all is lost in Iraq when they hear them — and the courage to say so.
This assessment is remarkable, of course, not only for the fact that its authors are breaking ranks with nearly all of the rest of the Democrats’ foreign-policy establishment. It is also noteworthy for being the latest and, arguably, most objective indicator that the situation on the ground in Iraq is, indeed, changing for the better.
As such, the O’Hanlon-Pollack report makes plain one other truth: Those who persist in denying that General David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy is having the desired, salutary effect and who insist that our defeat is inevitable are promoting a self-fulfilling prophesy. They are so determined to score domestic political points by unilaterally ending the conflict in Iraq that they are prepared to surrender the country to al Qaeda and various Shiite militias and their respective Saudi, Iranian and Syrian enablers.
Public-opinion polling and anecdotal evidence suggests that Americans are beginning to appreciate the true nature — and potentially enormous costs — of the surrender in Iraq being advocated by many Democrats and a few Republicans. The O’Hanlon-Pollack op-ed may reflect that reality as much as shape it. Either way, its authors deserve our thanks.
– Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy.
Victor Davis Hanson
What is interesting about the essay is that both scholars were early supporters of the war to remove Saddam Hussein, then constant critics of the acknowledged mistakes of the occupation, and now somewhat confident that Gen. Petraeus can still salvage a victory. In two regards, they reflect somewhat the vast majority of the American people who approved the war, slowly soured on the peace — but now have yet to be won over again by the surge to renew their erstwhile support.
We are witnessing two phenomena. First, after four years of misery the Iraqis themselves are tiring of war, have grasped what al Qaeda et al. do when in local control, realize the U.S. wants to leave only after establishing a constitutional state, not steal its oil, sense that the United States may well win — and are slowly making adjustments to hedge their bets.
In a wider sense, the war is as most wars: an evolution from blunders to wisdom, the side that makes the fewest and learns from them the most eventually winning. Al Qaeda and the insurgents in 2004-6 developed the means, both tactical and strategic, to thwart the reconstruction, but we, not they, have since learned the more and evolved.
As in the Civil War, WWI, and WWII, the present American military — which has committed far less mistakes than past American forces — has shifted tactics, redefined strategy, and found the right field commanders. We forget that the U.S. Army and Marines, far from being broken, now have the most experienced and wizened officers in the world. Like Summer 1864, Summer 1918, and in the Pacific 1944-5, the key is the support of a weary public for an ever improving military that must nevertheless endure a final storm before breaking the enemy.
The irony is that should President Bush endure the hysteria and furor and prove able to give the gifted Gen. Petraeus the necessary time — and I think he will — his presidency could still turn out to be Trumanesque, once we digest the changes in Europe, the progress on North Korea, the end of both the Taliban and Saddam, and the prevention of another 9/11 attack. How odd that all the insider advice to triangulate — big spending, new programs, uninspired appointments, liberal immigration reform — have nearly wrecked the administration, and what were once considered its liabilities — foreign policy, the war on terror and Iraq — may still save it.
– Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author, most recently, of A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.
Clifford D. May
Yes, Virginia, there are some rational, reasoning liberals. Michael O’Hanlon and Ken Pollack have long been among them. They are serious students of national security. They are Democrats but not hyper-partisans. They are not so willfully self-deluded as to believe that America’s defeat in Iraq would be a problem only for President Bush and those pesky neocons. They understand that America’s defeat in Iraq — at the hands of al Qaeda and Iranian-backed militias — would be hugely consequential for America.
What O’Hanlon and Pollack conclude — “There is enough good happening on the battlefields of Iraq today that Congress should plan on sustaining the effort at least into 2008” — is not exactly breaking news to those who read NRO, The Weekly Standard, and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages. It is not news to anyone who has been carefully following developments in Iraq since Gen. David Petraeus was confirmed as the American commander in that theater.
But most Americans have heard only the drumbeat of the antiwar Left. The Left has been banging out the message that the Petraeus mission has failed — since before the Petraeus mission was fully underway. And most of the mainstream media have been unwilling even to suggest an alternative narrative. (A notable exception is the Times’ own John Burns, a reporter who is apparently not read by Times editorial writers.)
So the O’Hanlon/Pollack op-ed is important. It forces the conversation to re-open. Even such media outlets as CNN now have to discuss the possibility that the war in Iraq might yet be won. That may at least give pause to rattled Republicans as well as to rational, reasoning Democrats.
Yes, Virginia, there are such Democrats.
– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies , a policy institute focusing on terrorism.
Senator John McCain
Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack have uncovered a truth that seems to escape congressional Democrats: General Petraeus’s new strategy has shown remarkable progress. Earlier this month, on my sixth trip to Iraq, it was evident that our military is making dramatic achievements throughout the country.
Despite this progress, Democrats today advocate a precipitous withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. They are wrong, and their approach portends catastrophe for both Iraq and the United States. To fail in Iraq risks creating a sanctuary for al Qaeda, sparking a full scale civil war, genocide, and violence that could spread far beyond Iraq’s borders. To leave prematurely is to ensure just one thing: that we will be back, in more dangerous and difficult circumstances. We cannot and must not lose this war.
We must prevail. General Petraeus and his troops have asked Congress for just two things: the time and support they need to carry out their mission. They must have both, however much the congressional Democrats seek to withhold them. That is why I will keep fighting to ensure that our commanders have what they need to win this war.
I cannot guarantee success. But I do guarantee that, should Congress fail to sustain the effort, and should it pay no heed to the lessons drawn by Mr. Pollack and Mr. O’Hanlon, then America will face a historic and terrible defeat. Such a defeat, with its enormous human and strategic costs, will unfold unless we do all in our power to prevent it. I, for one, will continue to do just that.
Mackubin Thomas Owens
What is most interesting about this article is not what it says, but who is saying it. If a conservative were to write such an article, the skeptics most assuredly would immediately dismiss it as repeating White House talking points. But the fact that two severe critics of the Bush administration’s management of the war — from a think tank usually described as liberal to boot — have published such a piece in the New York Times of all places might, under normal circumstances, give opponents of the war pause.
The security situation in Iraq is clearly improving. The worn-out cliché that an insurgency cannot be defeated by military means alone is true as far as it goes, but security is sine qua non of stability in a counterinsurgency. The fact that the Sunni sheiks have been turning against al Qaeda and the other Salafi groups and the Shia have, to a lesser extent, rejected Sadr’s Mahdi army bodes well for security in the long run.
But does it matter at this point? Time is running out, not in Iraq but in Washington, D.C., where, as more than one commentator has pointed out, the Democratic majority in Congress and the party’s presidential candidates all seem to have opted for defeat and disgrace. Thanks to these geniuses and the Republicans who enable them, we may be on the verge of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
– Mackubin Thomas Owens is an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.
James S. Robbins
There is no question that on the ground the war is being won. Baghdad is becoming more secure. Iraqi tribal leaders and even some insurgent groups are turning against al Qaeda in Iraq and other outsiders who are pursuing their own violent agenda and who care nothing for the people of Iraq. The activities of Iran, Syria, and other counties supporting the insurgency are coming under increasing scrutiny and public censure. Iraqi military and police forces are fielding thousands of new, trained recruits every month. The government of Iraq may not be addressing all of the legislative initiatives we would like them to, such as the energy law and sorting out power sharing in their federal structure; but it took our country 75 years to come to grips with the contradictions inherent in our Constitution, and with a great deal more violence. We can give them time.
The weak link in the war effort is in the U.S. Congress. Politically driven assessments that downplay the progress of the war, pandering to antiwar groups, and a public that has tuned out, add up to grave difficulties in sustaining the war effort. Given more time, the progress in Iraq will become so clear as to be undeniable, and the troop drawdown could commence on more favorable terms. There is a significant difference between withdrawal in the face of adversity and redeployment after meeting our stated objectives. It is the difference between defeat and victory.
– James S. Robbins is the director of the Intelligence Center at Trinity Washington University and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.
Peter W. Rodman
No one should underestimate the power of boredom as a determinant of journalistic opinion: When doomsaying becomes commonplace, the novelty factor works in favor of optimism. Objective reality is a necessary condition for today’s more hopeful assessments in Iraq, but it is never sufficient. It has been apparent for a while that the president’s “surge” is helping stabilize the military situation. That analysts like Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack are prepared to affirm it clearly after visiting Iraq is to their great credit. Journalists not driven by anti-Bush animus may now want to herd in the more positive direction.
The next question is how our domestic politics will absorb this new perception. On its face, it strengthens the President and complicates the Democrats’ internal divisions. Doomsayers will zero in on Iraqi failures in the political dimension; these failures, I hope, reflect only a time lag before improved security conditions boost the self-confidence and political strength of Iraqi moderates. Those in this country determined on abandoning Iraq will always find excuses. But, finally, the improved mood — and reality — should embolden Republicans to help the president hold the line through the (totally artificial) interim reckoning scheduled for September.
– Peter W. Rodman, a former NR senior editor, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He served until recently as assistant secretary of Defense for international-security affairs.
Joseph Morrison Skelly
The answer to all three questions posed by this timely symposium is, I believe, a qualified “yes.” With regard to the first query — is there “some kind of mood change afoot?” — it is important to distinguish between the war’s harshest critics, its wavering skeptics, and its steadfast supporters. There has not been a mood change among the war’s vehement antagonists, but the essay by Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack is indicative of a begrudging acceptance of the tentative progress in Iraq by some of the war’s agnostics. While the war’s critics will, alas, never accept the new facts on the ground nor will their demeanor change under any circumstances, something akin to a mood swing among the war’s skeptics will follow continued improvement in Iraq. As this scenario unfolds it is likely that they will catch up with the war’s stalwart supporters, whose faith, long tested by the tough going and long derided by the war’s critics, is now being vindicated.
“Could we really can win this war?” Yes, with victory defined not as perfection, but as a stable Iraq at peace with itself, respectful of its neighbors, and an ally in the War against Islamic Terrorism. After several years of searching for a viable strategy, the United States military, its Coalition allies and its Iraqi counterparts are now waging a campaign based upon some of the tried and tested principles of counterinsurgency warfare that have been newly updated for the twenty-first century. The battle plan is encapsulated in the U.S. Army / Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which was drafted by a team led by General David Petraeus and is now being published by the University of Chicago Press. Kudos must also go to defense analysts who laid out the theoretical basis for the surge, including Fred Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a former professor of military history at West Point, and the author of an important new book on this subject, Finding the Target. Most of all, it is the soldiers on the ground who are turning the tide in Iraq. Michael Yon is detailing their success in Operation Arrowhead Ripper in Diyala in a series of compelling dispatches. Further west, the accomplishments of the Marines in Anbar province, with Army and Air Force support, has been remarkable; when the story of this war is written, their victory will loom large.
The momentum on the battlefield means that it is now likely that Operation Iraqi Freedom will be won or lost on the home front in America, thus lending immediacy to the question “Could the rhetoric in Washington really change?” The answer: perhaps. The critics of this war will never alter their tune, since they have so much invested in failure. But the rhetoric of the skeptics may change gradually. Like the national mood, it will be influenced by events on the ground. Should progress continue, people will wish to be associated with it. We will thus witness the truth inherent in the well known adage, “Victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” Count Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s foreign minister, first used this formula in 1942 as World War II inexorably shifted against the Fascists, and President John F. Kennedy paraphrased it in 1961 after the Bay of Pigs debacle, increasing the number of fathers to one thousand. During the trying times of the past several years, President Bush has often stood alone in Washington, the orphaned architect of what many critics assumed to be a certain defeat, but perhaps he will soon be joined by the city’s skeptics, whose rhetoric will improve as they align themselves with the vast majority of Americans who already believe we can win. Some may view their reaction as cynical, and to a certain extent this is true, but it is also natural, people wish to be linked with success. Welcome the skeptics aboard. What matters in the long run is that we win. When that happens, victory in Mesopotamia will have not one hundred or one thousand, but millions of fathers, American and Iraqi alike, all of whom can take pride in what they have achieved.
– Joseph Morrison Skelly is an academic fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.
I am in broad agreement with most of the article by O’Hanlon and Pollack and, in fact, have been reporting in writing, on national radio, and most recently on Good Morning America that I have been seeing remarkable positive changes in Iraq.
I asked General Petraeus last night for his opinion of the current situation. General Petraeus responded with: “Our assessment at this point is that we have begun to achieve a degree of momentum on the ground in going after AQI sanctuaries and in disrupting the activities of some of the militia extremists; however, AQI continues to try to reignite ethno-sectarian violence and clearly still has the capability to carry out sensational attacks that cause substantial civilian loss of life. And the militia elements certainly continue to pursue sectarian displacement in certain fault-line areas and to cause trouble in some Shia provinces as well. So there’s clearly considerable work to be done by Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces. Beyond that, the spread of Sunni Arab rejection of AQI is very important and is a development on which we are still trying to capitalize beyond Anbar Province, where the effects are already very clear.”
In fact, I have had the feeling for more than a month that top U.S. leadership in Iraq has been being cautious not to show too much optimism at this time. However, I have seen changes with my own eyes in Nineveh, Anbar, and Diyala that are more fundamental than just winning battles. In Nineveh, the enemies of a united Iraq are still strong and vibrant, but the Iraqi army and police in Nineveh clearly are improving faster than the enemy is improving. In other words, the Iraqi Security Forces are winning that particular race. Out in Anbar, the shift actually began to occur last year while Special Forces and other less-than-visible operators, along with conventional forces such as the Marines, began harnessing the mood-shift of the tribes. Whereas in Nineveh the fight has been more like a race and test of endurance, in Anbar the outcome was more like an avalanche. Parts of Diyala, such as Baqubah, witnessed avalanche-like positive changes beginning on June 19 with Operation Arrowhead Ripper. I witnessed the operation and was given full access. However, other areas in Diyala remain serious problems. I have seen firsthand many sectarian issues. There remains civil war in parts of Diyala (largely thanks to AQI). Down in Basra, a completely different problem-set faces the British who themselves are facing tough choices.
Skipping past the blow-by-blow and getting to the bottom line: I sense there has been a fundamental shift in Iraq. One officer called it a “change in the seas,” and I believe his words were accurate. Something has changed. The change is fundamental, and for once seems positive. And so, back to the O’Hanlon-Pollack story in the New York Times, “A War We Just Might Win,” I agree.
– Michael Yon is an independent writer, photographer, and former Green Beret who was embedded in Iraq for nine months in 2005. He has returned to Iraq for 2007 to continue reporting on the war. He is entirely reader supported and publishes his work at www.michaelyon-online.com.