As always, the inadvertent slip is the most telling. Discussing the performance of British troops, Gen. David Petraeus told Sen. Joe Biden of the Foreign Relations Committee that he’d be consulting with British colleagues in London on his way back “home.” He had meant to say “Iraq,” where he is now on his third tour of duty. Is there any other actor in Washington’s Iraq-war drama — from Harry Reid to the Joint Chiefs — who could have made such a substitution? Anyone who not only knows Iraq the way Petraeus does, but feels it in all its gravity and complexity?
When asked about Shiite militia domination of southern Iraq, Petraeus patiently went through the four provinces, one by one, displaying a degree of knowledge of the local players, terrain, and balance of power that no one in Washington — and few in Iraq — could match.
When Biden thought he had a gotcha — contradictions between Petraeus’s report on Iraqi violence and the less favorable one by the Government Accountability Office — Petraeus calmly pointed out that the GAO had to cut its data-gathering five weeks short to meet reporting requirements to Congress. And since those most recent five weeks had been particularly productive for the coalition, the GAO numbers were not only outdated but misleading.
For all the attempts by Democrats and the antiwar movement to discredit Petraeus, he won the congressional confrontation hands down. He demonstrated enough military progress from his new counterinsurgency strategy to conclude: “I believe we have a realistic chance of achieving our objectives in Iraq.”
The American people are not antiwar. They are anti-losing. Which means they are also anti-drift. Adrift is where we were during most of 2006 — the annus horribilis initiated by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s bringing down the Golden Mosque in Samarra — until the new counterinsurgency strategy of 2007 (the “surge”) reversed the trajectory of the war.
It was being lost both in Iraq and at home. On the home front, Petraeus deftly deflated the rush to withdrawal that appeared poised to acquire irresistible momentum this summer. First, by demonstrating real and irrefutable territorial gains on the ground. And second, by proposing minor immediate withdrawals to be followed by fully liquidating the “surge” by next summer. Those withdrawals should be enough to hold the wobbly Republican senators. And perhaps even more important, the Pentagon brass.
The service chiefs no longer fight wars. That’s now left to theater commanders such as Petraeus. The chiefs’ job is to raise armies — to recruit, train, equip and manage. Petraeus’s job is to use their armies to win wars. The chiefs are quite reasonably concerned about the enormous strain put on their worldwide forces by the tempo of operations in Iraq. Petraeus’s withdrawal recommendations have prevented a revolt of the generals.
Petraeus’s achievement is no sleight of hand. If he had not produced real demonstrable progress on the ground — reported by many independent observers, including liberal Democrats, even before he came back home (i.e., the U.S.) — his appearance before Congress would have swayed no one.
His testimony, steady, and forthright, bought him the time to achieve his “realistic chance” of success. Not the unified democratic Iraq we had hoped for the day Saddam’s statue came down, but a radically decentralized Iraq with enough regional autonomy and self-sufficiency to produce a tolerable stalemated coexistence between contending forces.
That’s for the longer term and still quite problematic. In the shorter term, however, there is a realistic chance of achieving a separate success that, within the context of Iraq, is of a second order but in the global context is of the highest order — the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq.
Having poisoned one country and been expelled from it (Afghanistan), al Qaeda seized upon post-Saddam instability to establish itself in the very heart of the Arab Middle East — Sunni Iraq. Yet now, in front of all the world, Iraq’s Sunnis are, to use the biblical phrase, vomiting out al Qaeda. This is a defeat and humiliation in the extreme — an Arab Muslim population rejecting al Qaeda so violently that it allies itself in battle with the infidel, the foreigner, the occupier.
Just carrying this battle to its successful conclusion — independent of its larger effect of helping stabilize Iraq — is justification enough for the surge. The turning of Sunni Iraq against al Qaeda is a signal event in the war on terror. Petraeus’s plan is to be allowed to see it through.
© 2007, The Washington Post Writers Group