Politics & Policy

Petraeus Patience

If Gen. David Petraeus wasn’t denounced as a traitor upon his arrival on Capitol Hill Tuesday, his testimony was the occasion for the same dreary willful obtuseness on the part of congressional Democrats as in September.

Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker again were cautious and understated, perhaps to a fault. Without over-promising, they explained how we have built on the tentative security gains that Democrats were so skeptical of six months ago, and that there has begun to be political movement. The progress we have won is “fragile and reversible” as they repeatedly said, dependent — among other things — on maintaining sufficient U.S. forces in Iraq.

It’s the last part that Democrats especially don’t want to hear, as they lurch between arguing that the Iraqis will be better able to sort things out without us and that we are in the middle of an unstoppable civil war. Tuesday, they focused on recent events in Basra as evidence of the incompetence of the Iraqi government and complained the Iraqis aren’t shouldering more of the financial burden of the war and reconstruction.

Basra just happened to be the fresh bad news (or seeming bad news) at hand. The dust from Basra has yet to settle and it’s foolish to make grand pronouncements about its ultimate outcome either way. The factoid of the hour was that 1,000 Iraqi soldiers or police “deserted or underperformed.” This is a statistic that should be handled with care. There is a difference between deserting and under-performing, and it would be much more alarming if the Iraqis in question were seasoned military professionals rather than local police more naturally prone to intimidation and militia influences.

Whatever the case, the Iraqi military managed to move thousands of troops to Basra with minimal help from us and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malki declared himself against the Iranian-backed “special groups” of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army — both encouraging developments. If Sadr emerges from this confrontation further marginalized, Iraq will have taken another important step toward the goal of sustainable stability.

Sen. Edward Kennedy questioned whether we have any dog in the Basra fight, an astonishing posture given Gen. Petraeus’s stark warnings about Iran’s malign role in Iraq. He noted “the destructive role Iran has played in funding, training, arming and directing the so-called special groups,” which he called “the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq.” Crocker said the Iranians are pursuing a strategy of “Lebanonization,” i.e. destabilizing the country while arming favored Shia factions. Is it really of no account to Democrats whether a sworn enemy of the United States takes over part of Iraq? On the war, the Democrats have an uncontrollable reflex for the childish.

Witness their complaints about Iraqi-government spending. On one level, they are unremarkable. Every American in Iraq is frustrated that the Iraqi government isn’t spending more of its windfall oil revenues. The problem is that spending money isn’t as easy as the U.S. Congress makes it look. It depends on efficient bureaucracies of the sort that don’t exist in Iraq yet. The Iraqis should be prodded and assisted on this front (as we’ve been doing), but the Iraqi government isn’t going to build this capacity overnight.

In the meantime, the U.S. can’t be seen to be lusting over Iraq’s resources. At times Tuesday, Democrats seemed to have gone from arguing that our heavy-handed occupation is alienating Iraqis to demanding that Iraqis do more to fund our heavy-handed occupation. Our funding of the “Sons of Iraq” — the largely Sunni security volunteers — came under fire in a mind-boggling instance of being penny-wise but pound-foolish. In disapproving tones, Sen. Claire McCaskill noted we pay them “twice the average salary you would make in Iraq.” As Petraeus explained, the Sons of Iraq have paid for themselves already in the savings from fewer vehicle kills from IEDs (not to mention the American lives saved, and the incalculable strategic benefit of their defection from the insurgency).

Petraeus and Crocker always counsel patience when talking of Iraq. They displayed it themselves during hours of interrogation on Capitol Hill. They are impressive public servants with no agenda other than trying to help the United States win a crucial war. Would that their antagonists learned from their example.

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