General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, testifying before the House and the Senate during the last two days, did what many people thought was impossible: They reset the Washington clock. These good men, by what they have achieved in Iraq and by the force and power of their testimonies, have recast the terms of the debate. They will now have until next summer to build on their successes, which in turn could eventually lead to a decent outcome in Iraq. To appreciate how extraordinary this is, it’s worth recalling how far we have come.
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2006 was an awful year in Iraq. A very difficult situation turned grave in the aftermath of the February bombing of the Samarra mosque. Iraq began to break apart, with ethnic and religious violence increasing across the land. The American strategy, flawed from the outset, was not able to contain the spreading chaos and the approaching civil war. The American public, already weary, began to turn in large numbers against the war. And Republicans lost control of the House and Senate in the November midterm elections.
By the end of 2006 the original “light footprint” strategy was jettisoned — but a new strategy was not yet in place. Confronting gale force political winds and calls from almost every side to wind down the Iraq war, the president — to his everlasting credit — did the opposite: He called for a surge in forces. It was the last chance we had to keep Iraq from a descent into hell. And to oversee that new strategy, the president turned to a general named Petraeus.
By now most people know what unfolded in the aftermath of that decision. General Petraeus, in combination with his exceptional team, put in place the elements of a successful strategy, which included a significant increase in American troops who were armed with a new mission. And now, eight months after it was announced — and only three months after the full compliment of troops arrived — we have seen signs of real progress.
Civilian deaths of all categories have declined by more than 45 percent in Iraq since the height of sectarian violence in December. During the same period the number of overall ethno-sectarian deaths has decreased by more than half and by about 80 percent in Baghdad. We’ve seen a dramatic decrease in monthly attack levels in Anbar Province, due in large measure to the rejection of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) by local Anbaris. The number of car bombings and suicide attacks has declined in each of the past five months. And the number of areas in which AQI have enjoyed sanctuary has been considerably reduced.
In the words of Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution and senior author of the Iraq Index, “All major categories of violence have been trending downward over the course of the year, according to most primary data sources, be they American, Iraqi or non-governmental.”
The central government remains frustratingly inefficient — yet we are also seeing a hugely important, if largely unanticipated, phenomenon: political reconciliation from the ground up. We are seeing revenue sharing without revenue sharing laws, conditional immunity without conditional immunity laws, and de-Baathification reform without de-Baathification laws.
What does all this mean? General Petraeus will now be given the time he needs to continue his extraordinary work. We don’t yet know if he’ll succeed; Iraq remains a fragile and fractured nation, violence is still high, AQI remains lethal (if on the run), and Syria and — especially Iran remain deeply problematic. With all that said, we’re now on a path to progress. In the words of Ambassador Crocker, “A secure, stable, democratic Iraq at peace with its neighbors is attainable.”
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If the situation in Iraq is fundamentally different today than it was eight months ago, the same thing is also true of the politics of the war. Today Democrats more than Republicans are confused and divided about their approach to the war. And during the last week, something important changed. Leading Democrats organized an effort to smear the commanding general in Iraq.
Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts said the general’s testimony was a “Petraeus village” that was “just a façade to hide from view the continuing failure of the Bush administration’s strategy.” Representative Rahm Emanuel, in discussing the Petraeus report, said, “We don’t need a report that wins the Nobel Prize for creative statistics or the Pulitzer for fiction.”
Senator Dick Durbin said, “By carefully manipulating the statistics, the Bush-Petraeus report will try to persuade us that violence in Iraq is decreasing.” Last week one unnamed Democratic Senator told The Politico, “No one wants to call [Petraeus] a liar on national TV… the expectation is that the outside groups will do this for us.” And just like that MoveOn.org published a full page ad in the New York Times stating, “General Petraeus is likely to become General Betray Us.”
What exactly is causing the American Left and its Democratic supporters to slander General Petraeus? What is his Great Sin? It is simply this: General Petraeus is helping America succeed in this war, and he is honestly reporting on his success. Apparently this is grounds for vilification among some on the Left and within the modern Democratic party.
The effort to besmirch the good name of David Petraeus is politically insane. The claim by anti-war critics that they oppose the war but support the troops is a lot harder to make when those in their ranks maliciously attack the commander of the troops, who happens to be succeeding.
And for those of us who have watched much of the hearings on television, one could not help but be struck by this contrast: Petraeus and Crocker in command, unflappable, professional, radiating competence and confidence, respectful but never allowing themselves to be intimidated. Many Democrats, on the other hand, appeared angry, agitated, long-winded, and out of their depth. General David Petraeus is the military analogue of Justice John Roberts, and their critics looked equally foolish going after both men.
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“If ever (Herbert) Spencer wrote a tragedy, its plot would be the slaying of a beautiful deduction by an ugly fact,” Thomas Huxley wrote. It is an odd situation indeed to find members of America’s political class greeting demonstrable evidence of progress in Iraq as ugly and inconvenient facts. But fortunately we seem to be past the danger point, when Members of Congress can recklessly undo what General Petraeus, Ambassador Crocker, and the remarkable men and women of our armed forces have achieved. Now Members of the House and Senate are simply left to posture, rage against the wind, and passionately insist, against a growing body of evidence, that a war that might be won is hopelessly lost.
— Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.