Politics & Policy

Realistic Optimism

In their testimony yesterday, Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker gave a factual, sober, and cautiously optimistic assessment of the Iraq war. It’s the optimism that drives the Left over the bend, with MoveOn.org accusing Petraeus of treason (“General Betray Us”) for the offense of persisting in trying to win a major war in the Middle East.

Elected Democrats quickly scurried away from the MoveOn.org ad, but many of them certainly endorse its spirit. One Democratic senator told the Politico a few days ago, “No one wants to call [Petraeus] a liar on national TV. The expectation is that the outside groups will do this for us.” MoveOn.org — one of the most well-heeled and active groups in the Democratic base — duly met the expectation. Its accusation only took the mainstream Democratic charge that Petraeus has been “cooking the books” to its logical conclusion.

While the Left questioned his honesty and patriotism, Petraeus made the case that “the military objectives of the surge are, in large measure, being met.” He noted the blows that have been dealt to al Qaeda in Iraq; the decline in ethno-sectarian violence in Baghdad and the rest of the country; the improvement of the Iraqi Security Forces; the tribal rejection of al Qaeda; and the disruption of the operations of Shiite militants and Iranian agents. He said that “the situation in Iraq remains complex, difficult, and sometimes downright frustrating,” but that we can “achieve our objectives over time.”

Petraeus outlined a timetable for drawing down from the surge by summer 2008, but offered important stipulations. First, that withdrawals be made “without jeopardizing the security gains that we have fought so hard to achieve.” Second, that the mission not move prematurely away from the goal of securing the Iraqi population, since that has been so important to the surge’s success. Third, that any consideration of troop withdrawals to levels below the pre-surge total of 130,000 be put off until next March. Given how dynamic the war is, projecting how it will stand — and what forces we will need — “far into the future is not just difficult, it can be misleading and even hazardous.”

We don’t like the idea of beginning the drawdown as soon as this year as Petraeus recommended, and suspect he is suggesting it with one eye to the Joint Chiefs, who are desperate to relieve the surge’s strain on the military. We also assume that, if at any point President Bush believes the drawdown as outlined by Petraeus would harm the war effort, he will keep more troops in Iraq — even if that means further painful decisions about call-ups and troop rotations. But, in sheer political terms, Petraeus’s testimony frames the debate over a withdrawal properly. Everyone wants to bring our troops home. The question is whether we will do it willy-nilly against the best judgment of military commanders on the ground, or in a responsible way that preserves the undeniable gains we’ve made this year.

Ambassador Crocker had a harder task yesterday than General Petraeus, because the focus of his testimony was Iraq’s political track, where there has been much less demonstrable progress, especially at the national level. He nonetheless provided a useful corrective to the uninformed pessimism of congressmen who seem to know little about Iraqi politics beyond the talking point that the Iraqi parliament took time off during August. Crocker reminded us how fundamental the issues facing Iraqi politicians are, concerning as they do questions about what kind of country Iraq will be and how it will be governed.

Crocker noted promising signs that aren’t captured by the political “benchmarks,” including the integration of former Sunni insurgents into Iraqi security forces, and the government’s reaching out to former members of the Iraqi military. He persuasively argued that there is movement in Iraqi politics beneath the deadlock in parliament, and that “the cumulative trajectory of political, economic, and diplomatic developments in Iraq is upwards, although the slope of that line is not steep.”

That statement captures the tone of the testimony of both men. They didn’t oversell progress or minimize the formidable obstacles to success in Iraq. Petraeus’s warnings about the malign role of Iran — which is seeking to create “a Hezbollah-like force to serve its interests and fight a proxy war” in Iraq — were particularly alarming.

Too often during this war, generals and administration representatives have made assurances of progress that weren’t believable while failing to grapple with the complex realties of war-torn Iraq. That wasn’t the case Monday. Petraeus and Crocker couched their optimism in realistic terms, and brought to the table the credibility that comes with having brought Iraq a few steps back from the brink. Supporters of the war — nay, all patriots — should be proud that the country has such servants.


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