Politics & Policy

The Democrats’ Counsel of Despair

David Bonior has a problem with the surge — it’s had some success. The campaign manager for John Edwards slammed Hillary Clinton for telling the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention that “we’ve begun to change our tactics in Iraq and in some areas, particularly in al Anbar province, it’s working.” Bonior called on Sen. Clinton to “reconsider her ill-advised statement and reaffirm her dedication to using Congress’ constitutional funding power to end this war.” Bonior himself, however, notes “our military’s hard-won progress in al-Anbar province.”

Bonior’s position appears to be that admitting that the surge is working should be avoided as much as possible, lest it increase political support for the war. As Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “It’s difficult to say positive things in this environment and not have some snarky apologist for the White House turn it into clipped phraseology that looks like support for the president’s policies.” Better, then, to ignore all progress?

The fact is that the surge is President Bush’s policy, and one that he implemented over the vociferous opposition of Democrats who thought the best strategy against al Qaeda in Iraq was to begin to leave. Now the surge has helped turn Sunni tribes against al Qaeda, advancing the goal that nearly everyone in the U.S. notionally shares of routing the terror group from Iraq. Democrats try to chalk up this progress generically to the courage and the adeptness of our troops. Our troops were just as courageous and adept a year ago but they were burdened, unfortunately, by a flawed strategy of prematurely pulling back to let Iraqi forces take the lead — exactly the strategy Democrats have favored ever since President Bush announced the surge.

The new National Intelligence Estimate reports “measurable but uneven improvements in Iraq’s security situation,” and says a shift from counterinsurgency operations to efforts simply to train Iraqis “would erode security gains achieved so far.” On the other hand, the estimate is grim on the prospects of the Maliki government that, it predicts, “will become more precarious over the next six to 12 months.” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has become a favored target of Democrats this week as they shift the focus from military progress to the failure to meet the political benchmarks set out along with the surge in January. Trying to placate her Democratic critics, Clinton said on Wednesday, “The surge was designed to give the Iraqi government time to take steps to ensure a political solution. It has failed.”

This is too simplistic. The surge has failed to enable legislative progress on the part of the central government (i.e., the benchmarks), but important political progress has been taking place in Iraq. The turn of the Sunni tribes away from al Qaeda and toward us is a crucial political development. If anyone had thought this was possible at the beginning of the year (it wasn’t even mentioned in the January 2007 NIE), it might have been included as a benchmark and considered the most important one. Are we really supposed to discount this political progress because it happened in a manner and on a timetable that no one would have predicted?

As the NIE notes, the central government needs to build on this progress at the local level by passing legislation aimed at reconciling Sunni and Shia. (Essentially, for now, the Sunni tribes have reconciled to us, but not to the Shia.) But this isn’t all that matters in Iraq, as Democrats suggest when they say there is no “military solution.” They are right that there isn’t an exclusively military solution, but neither is there an exclusively political solution. As we’ve seen in Anbar, the military and political dimensions of the war constantly interact. It would have been harder for the Sunni tribes to turn against al Qaeda absent our military help, and even if they had, they probably wouldn’t have been strong enough to beat back the terror group. Our military operations have been key to the political progress there and the political progress has, in turn, facilitated our military operations.

The Democrats’ counsel of despair would only make sense if we had sent another 30,000 troops to Iraq to pursue a new strategy and nothing had come of it. Instead, we have seen results and the NIE forecasts more (“modest”) progress on the military front if we maintain our counter-insurgency operations. We can’t know whether Maliki’s government will ever congeal enough to become effective and whether it will ever pass broad-based reform legislation. But if the violence of 2006 had continued unabated, the Iraqi government might have fallen by now. The Democrats — of all people — shouldn’t forget that Iraq has been traumatized by a civil war; political reconciliation, if it happens, will take time and only happen in an environment of increasing security.

President Bush provoked liberal outrage when he cited the Vietnam war in making the case for the war in his speech at the VFW convention. Of course, Vietnam analogies cut both ways. The Iraq war is, as critics point out, like Vietnam in that we are trying to create a legitimate, capable government in the midst of a brutal war of insurgency — and learning (or re-learning) how arduous and complicated a task that is. But Bush was right to remind us of the horrific humanitarian costs of the precipitous withdrawal from Southeast Asia demanded by liberals in the 1970s. He might have mentioned another similarity with Vietnam — how Democrats were in such a fever to pullout that they disregarded any encouraging signs on the ground and abandoned all strategic sense.

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