Politics & Policy

‘Stuck on Lost’

Friedrich Nietzsche would understand. The Democrats are caught in what the philosopher called “eternal recurrence.” They continually seek to cut off funds for the Iraq war, no matter the political futility of the effort or the changing conditions on the ground in Iraq.

The latest cutoff legislation is sponsored by Russ Feingold and Harry Reid. After 120 days, it would deny funding for anything other than a few approved purposes, including targeted operations against al-Qaeda, force protection, limited training of Iraqi forces, and withdrawal. It would eviscerate our successful counterinsurgency campaign and squander all the progress we’ve made over the last year.

Targeted raids against al-Qaeda are no substitute for counterinsurgency operations; pretending they are is an enduring fantasy of antiwar Democrats. It is impossible to get intelligence about al-Qaeda without intensive patrolling of Iraqi neighborhoods to establish relationships with the people and to make them secure enough to give us tips. Our experience is that once we clear neighborhoods, we have to hold them, or al-Qaeda will return. Pretty much any American officer on the ground in Iraq will tell you this method is the way to defeat al-Qaeda, and it is the reason we’ve been able to put the terror group on the defensive. Feingold and Reid want to substitute a theoretical counterterrorism program for an actual counterterrorism program — one that has denied al-Qaeda vast swathes of Iraq.

Feingold-Reid would also eliminate our most effective method of training the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). That happens in joint operations between U.S. and Iraqi forces, which the bill would prohibit. Thus, it would forbid one of the most important tactics of the surge — the establishment of joint security stations operated by U.S. and Iraqi forces out in neighborhoods — and impede the growing professionalization of Iraqi forces, which comes from working side-by-side with Americans.

By enabling the return of al-Qaeda and stopping us from continuing to fight it effectively — while at the same time preventing us from enhancing the proficiency of our allies — Feingold-Reid would be a boon to our enemies. It’s the most shameful legislation in Congress since … well, since the Democrats offered their last cutoff bill, in December.

John Podesta, Ray Takeyh, and Lawrence Korb took to the pages of the Washington Post yesterday to make the case for this kind of retreat. They demonstrate the bankruptcy of the antiwar case. They don’t mention al-Qaeda in their piece, as if it is of no consequence that al-Qaeda once controlled big chunks of Iraq and is now fighting to maintain its last stronghold in the country, in Mosul. They don’t mention any of the marked security improvements, as if the civil war were still burning as hot as it was in 2006 instead of being largely over. Gen. Russel Honoré once said of reporters in New Orleans that they were “stuck on stupid”; critics of the war are “stuck on lost,” unable to adjust their rhetoric or thinking to the drastically changed circumstances of 2008.

Opponents of the war argue that the surge has failed because the political benchmarks for the Iraqi government haven’t been met. Podesta and Co. write that the surge hasn’t provided the Iraqi government “the breathing space to pass the 18 legislative benchmarks the Bush administration called vital to political reconciliation. To date it has passed only four.” This is either dishonest or ill-informed.

The Iraqi parliament has recently passed an (imperfect) de-Baathification law, a provincial-powers law with a date for provincial elections, and an amnesty law — all big-ticket items demanded by the benchmarks. This is, inarguably, political progress. The most significant outstanding item is the oil law, which is being negotiated, although an agreement hasn’t been reached yet. The recent passage of the 2008 budget advances the same goal of spreading oil revenue around the country (although the central government has so far shown a limited willingness and ability to spend money effectively).

Other benchmarks have to do with the surge, and have been met: providing three trained and ready brigades to support the U.S. surge (in fact, the government has provided more); establishing joint security stations (done); ensuring that there is no safe haven in Baghdad (done); increasing Iraqi Security Forces units capable of operating independently (done); reducing sectarian violence (done). Other benchmarks are more nebulous, but there is no doubt that the Iraqi government is closer to meeting them than a year ago — providing Iraqi commanders with the authority to pursue all extremists without political interference; ensuring that the ISF enforces the law evenhandedly; ensuring that Iraqi authorities are not undermining the ISF.

The Iraqi government has vast deficiencies, and there still is too much sectarian influence at the top levels of the government and in the ISF. But merely saying that the benchmarks haven’t been met — and damning the war to failure on that basis — is yesterday’s soundbite.

Critics of the war have to do a two-step: maintaining that Iraq is an irrecoverable disaster, at the time arguing that it will be just fine if we leave. Podesta and Co. write that absent “a cumbersome and clumsy American occupation, Iraqis will make their own bargains and compacts.” Leave aside that “cumbersome and clumsy” is a smear on American troops who are welcomed by the locals in many areas as the best, most evenhanded security forces in the country and who, generally, have a fairly sophisticated understanding of Iraqi culture.

They are right that Iraqis will reach their own bargains absent U.S. troops, but that will probably involve outlaws or sectarians with guns establishing dominion over everyone else by force. No responsible Iraqi official thinks we can leave now, and neither does the U.S. command. Iraqi forces are growing steadily larger and more capable, but they aren’t there yet. When Korb isn’t conveniently hawking a rosy scenario, he’s said as much. Asked on the NewsHour in January whether Iraqi forces were ready to take over, he responded, “The Iraqis are not prepared.”

Despite the debate in the Senate, the most important moment in U.S. Iraq policy came two weeks ago when Secretary of Defense Bob Gates said he supports a “pause” in our drawdown once we reach the pre-surge level of 15 brigades. This means the internal administration and Pentagon debate has been resolved in favor of the pause. It is important to be certain that we aren’t losing any of our security gains as we draw down, and we’ll probably need 15 brigades to secure the crucial Oct. 1 provincial elections.

No one should underestimate the difficulties we still face in Iraq, a complex and dangerous country where our servicemen make incredible sacrifices every day. But we are clearly closer to success than we were a year ago. We would be in an even stronger position if half the American political spectrum weren’t bent on denying reality. Alas, the same people who were wrong about the surge a year ago are determined to remain wrong about it now.

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