Let's not mistake ends and means in Iraq
It does not have the drama of the Inchon landing or the sweep of the Union comeback in the summer of 1864. But the turnabout of American fortunes in Iraq over the last several months is of equal moment—a war seemingly lost, now winnable. The violence in Iraq has been dramatically reduced. Political allegiances have been radically reversed. The revival of ordinary life in many cities is palpable. Something important is happening.
And what is the reaction of the war critics? Nancy Pelosi stoutly maintains her state of denial, saying this about the war just two weeks ago: “This is not working. … We must reverse it.” A euphemism for “abandon the field,” which is what every Democratic presidential candidate is promising, with variations only in how precipitous to make the retreat.
How do they avoid acknowledging the realities on the ground? By asserting that we have not achieved political benchmarks—mostly legislative actions by the Baghdad government—that were set months ago. And that these benchmarks are paramount. And that all the current progress is ultimately vitiated by the absence of centrally legislated national reconciliation.
I can understand Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, saying that the central government needs to seize the window provided by the surge to achieve political reconciliation. We would all love to have the leaders of the various factions—Kurd, Shiite, and Sunni—sign nice pieces of paper tying up all the knotty questions of federalism, de-Baathification and oil revenues.
What commander would not want such a silver bullet that would obviate the need for any further ground action? But it is not going to happen for the same reason it has not already happened: The Maliki government is too sectarian and paralyzed to be able to end the war in a stroke of reconciliation.
But does the absence of this deus ex machine invalidate our hard-won gains? Why does this mean that we cannot achieve success by other means?
Sure, there is no oil law. But the central government is nonetheless distributing oil revenues to the provinces, where the funds are being used for reconstruction. Sure, the de-Baathification law has not been modified. But the whole purpose of modification was to entice Sunni insurgents to give up the insurgency and join the new order. This is already happening on a widening scale all over the country in the absence of a relaxed de-Baathification law.
As for federalism, the Kurds are running their own region, the Sunni sheiks in Anbar and elsewhere are exercising not just autonomy but control of their own security, and the southern Shiites are essentially governing themselves, the British having withdrawn in all but name.
Yes, a provincial powers law would be nice because it would allow for provincial elections. We should push hard for it. But we already have effective provincial and tribal autonomy in pivotal regions of the country.
Why is top-down national reconciliation as yet unattainable? Because decades of Saddam’s totalitarianism followed by the brutality of the post-invasion insurgency destroyed much of the political infrastructure of the country, causing the Iraqis to revert to the most basic political attachment—tribe and locality. Gen. David Petraeus’ genius has been to adapt American strategy to capitalize on that development, encouraging the emergence of and allying ourselves with tribal and provincial leaders—without waiting for cosmic national deliverance from the newly constructed and still dysfunctional constitutional apparatus in Baghdad.
Al-Qaida in Iraq is in disarray, the Sunni insurgency in decline, the Shiite militias quiescent, the capital city reviving. Are we now to reverse course and abandon all this because parliament cannot ratify the reconciliation already occurring on the ground?
Do the critics forget their own arguments about the irrelevance of formal political benchmarks? The transfer of power in 2004. The two elections in 2005. The ratification of the constitution. Those were all supposed to be turning points to pacify the country and bring stability—all blown to smithereens by the Samarra bombing in February 2006, which precipitated an orgy of sectarian violence and a descent into civil war.
So, just as we have learned this hard lesson of the disconnect between political benchmarks and real stability, the critics now claim the reverse—that benchmarks are what really count.
This is to fundamentally mistake ends and means. The benchmarks would be a wonderful shortcut to success in Iraq. But it is folly to abandon the pursuit of that success when a different route, more arduous but still doable, is at hand and demonstrably working.