Politics & Policy

Cleaning Up Mesopotamia

The success of Petraeus and Odierno is acknowledged, if sometimes reluctantly.

Last week, the Pentagon announced plans to promote General David Petraeus to Central Command and General Ray Odierno to the top post in Iraq. Amidst an unpopular foreign war, such occasions ordinarily trigger a feeding frenzy for war critics, eager to shed light on military missteps and miscalculations. In the wake of this announcement, though, resistance has been sparse and sporadic. Even Sen. Barack Obama preemptively announced he would support Petraeus’s nomination.

Putting aside the fact that both men are eminently qualified for their positions — Petraeus is America’s foremost expert on asymmetrical warfare and Odierno is his hard-nosed Iraq understudy — the lack of opposition is a tacit acknowledgement of the success of recent American policy in Mesopotamia. As former Iraq Study Group member and now Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday, Washington is realizing that “maybe staying the course isn’t such a bad idea.”

“Staying the course,” while poor White House phraseology, is a prudent decision today. Sixteen months ago, General Petraeus charted a new, transformational course in Iraq that helped facilitate drastic security and political gains on the ground. Muqtada al Sadr’s ceasefire helped create that stability, but America’s renewed commitment to the fight helped to induce Sadr’s quiescence. The appointment of Petraeus and Odierno will ensure that sound policies continue inside Iraq, moving Iraq toward sustainable stability and America toward strategic victory.

War critics, on the other hand, posit that General Petraeus brings an “Iraq-centric” approach to America’s national-security policy in the Middle East, diverting U.S. resources away from the “real and virtuous” war in Afghanistan. Iraq, they submit, has been and continues to be a distraction from the real fight against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere around the world.

This argument has been used since 2003, with diminishing plausibility every year. While the case could be made in 2003 that Iraq was not integrally related to the broader war on terror, it’s impossible to make that case today without employing bad intelligence or bad faith. We are knee-deep in Iraq, whether we like it or not, and jihadists from around the globe — led by al-Qaeda in Iraq and Iranian surrogates — have flocked there to defeat America and exploit a weak Iraqi government. As recently as last week, al-Qaeda leadership called Iraq the “front lines” in their war against the West.

Thankfully, 2007 will be remembered as the year al-Qaeda was crippled and discredited throughout much of the Sunni community — not just in Iraq, but across the Arab world, which closely monitors the situation on the many Arab news channels. Defeat on the battlefield in Iraq, coupled with rejection by Iraqi’s Sunni population, constitutes a devastating public-relations blow for al-Qaeda, but not yet a decisive blow.

Still, in 2008, U.S. attention will rightfully focus on Iranian influence in Iraq. Although Prime Minister Maliki’s political party has its own ties to Tehran, he has wisely begun to take the fight to the “special groups” in Basra, sending a strong message of Iraqi sovereignty and helping to persuade the largest Sunni political block to rejoin the government. American and Iraqi forces are clamping down on the Mahdi Army–controlled Sadr City, and have begun to disclose publicly the depths of Iranian interference in Iraq. According to the Department of Defense, Iranian-backed “special groups” are currently responsible for 73 percent of all attacks on American forces, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of Americans.

These two principal threats in Iraq — al-Qaeda and Iran — mirror the larger regional and global threats facing America and her allies. Unable to defeat America in any conventional sense, al-Qaeda and Iran believe Iraq will provide a public relations victory they can exploit for years. Iraq is the stage from which they hope to expand their influence and ideologies by defeating America. And they will attempt to count their barest survival as victory.

Thankfully, General Petraeus’s new role, overseeing Iraq, Afghanistan, and the broader Middle East, will give him an opportunity to holistically address problems in the region — including, but not limited to, Iranian influence in Iraq and their nuclear ambitions in the region; al-Qaeda havens in Pakistan; a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan; and the regional flow of jihadists from country to country. The “Iraq-centric” approach war critics deride is in fact vital to securing regional stability and strategic victory for America — in Iraq, Afghanistan, and throughout the region.

It takes leaders intimately familiar with the complex patchwork of Iraqi society — the historic seat of the Muslim caliphate for five centuries — to fully understand the broader implications of American interests in the Middle East. General Petraeus understands this, and his nomination sends a clear signal: our enemies will not only lose in Iraq, but face a holistic regional counter-insurgency strategy to defeat radical Islamism; the larger Arab world can expect continued American resolve; and our allies will see that America will finish what it starts, with or without their support.

Despite a war-weary public and poll-chasing politicians, most Americans recognize that General Petraeus’s experience in Iraq makes him exceedingly qualified to lead our broader Middle East effort. Just seven months after being derided as a traitor (“Betray-us”) by antiwar groups and accused of “cooking the books” by Democratic presidential candidates, General Petraeus is getting more responsibility.

Good news for us. Bad news for radical Islamists.

 – Captain Pete Hegseth, who served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division from 2005 to 2006, is executive director of Vets for Freedom.

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