Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Current Panic Over Iraq

There's a striking contrast between the lead editorials from this week's New York Times and the Wall Street Journal over the question of progress in Iraq.

Yesterday's New York Times called the Iraq deployment a "disaster," with the editors indicating that they had backed President Bush as long as there was a "conceivable road to success":

That road is vanishing. Today we want to describe a strategy for containing the disaster as much as humanly possible. It is hardly a recipe for triumph. Americans can only look back in wonder on the days when the Bush administration believed that success would turn Iraq into a stable, wealthy democracy — a model to strike fear into the region’s autocrats while inspiring a new generation of democrats. Even last fall, the White House was dividing its strategy into a series of victorious outcomes, with the short-term goal of an Iraq “making steady progress in fighting terrorists.” The medium term had Iraq taking the lead in “providing its own security” and “on its way to achieving its economic potential,” with the ultimate outcome being a “peaceful, united, stable and secure” nation.

If an American military occupation could ever have achieved those goals, that opportunity is gone. It is very clear that even with the best American effort, Iraq will remain at war with itself for years to come, its government weak and deeply divided, and its economy battered and still dependent on outside aid. The most the United States can do now is to try to build up Iraq’s security forces so they can contain the fighting — so it neither devours Iraqi society nor spills over to Iraq’s neighbors — and give Iraq’s leaders a start toward the political framework they would need if they chose to try to keep their country whole.

The tragedy is that even this marginal sort of outcome seems nearly unachievable now.
The editorial continues with a five-point plan for withdrawal, a key feature of which is the firing of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Today's Wall Street Journal is critical of the current American panic over Iraq policy, which the editors argue is driven by election-year politics:

As the critics describe it, all of Iraq is in chaos, its new government isn't functioning, the U.S. is helpless to act against these inexorable forces, and it is only a matter of time before we must pack up and leave in abject defeat. "We're on the verge of chaos, and the current plan is not working," declares Senator Lindsey Graham, in one of the purer expressions of this elite inconstancy. Just what Mr. Graham would do about this, he doesn't say; but in the land of blind panic, the sound-bite Senator is king.

Yes, the Iraq project is difficult, and its outcome dangerously uncertain. The Bush Administration and its military generals have so far failed to stem insurgent attacks or pacify Baghdad, and the factions comprising Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government have so far failed to make essential political compromises. But the American response to this should be to change military tactics or deployments until they do succeed, and to reassure Iraqi leaders that their hard political choices will result in U.S. support, not precipitous withdrawal....

The Bush Administration hasn't helped matters of late with its own appearance of indecision, asserting on one day that we must avoid "cut-and-run" while leaking on another that the forthcoming Baker-Hamilton report might be an opportunity for a strategic retreat. President Bush has sounded resolute himself, but many of his own advisers seem to be well along in their own electoral run for cover.

A measure of rationality at least came yesterday out of Baghdad, where General George Casey and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad tried to put the violence in some larger context. The Iraq government is in fact "functioning," as Iraqis continue to get their food rations, and as more than a million civil servants, Iraqi security force members and teachers continue to show up for work every day and get paid. Just this weekend, Iraq's oil minister announced that production had surpassed pre-war levels.

"Economically, I see an Iraq every day that I do not think the American people know about--where cell phones and satellite dishes, once forbidden, are now common, where economic reform takes place on a regular basis, where agricultural production is rising dramatically, and where the overall economy and the consumer sector is growing," said Mr. Khalilzad, who for this attempt at hopeful realism will be derided in some quarters as a Pollyanna.

As for security, two provinces have already been turned over entirely to the control of Iraqi forces, with a total of six or seven scheduled to be under Iraqi control by January. While the police forces remain unreliable, the Iraqi army is making notable progress. The joint Iraqi-U.S. operation to make Baghdad safe hasn't succeeded so far, but Iraqis we talk to say the situation in many specific neighborhoods of the capital has been vastly improved.

And while every terrorist success is broadcast far and wide, acts of bravery by Iraqi forces go unheralded. Only 10 days ago, insurgents staged a huge attack on government and police offices in Mosul, but it was successfully repulsed by Iraqi forces. Dozens of insurgents were killed or captured, and one heroic Iraqi police officer gave his life successfully defending others against a suicide truck bomber.

The truth is that the Sunni insurgents are still capable only of hit-and-run attacks, are slaughtered whenever they gather en masse, and have held down no permanent territory since Fallujah was cleaned out in late 2004. Nor have they been successful in their other goal of keeping their fellow Sunnis out of the political process. Sunnis continue to sit in the current government and parliament, despite being labelled "collaborators" and marked for death.

As General Casey observed yesterday, "we've seen the nature of the conflict evolving from what was an insurgency against us to a struggle for the division of political and economic power among the Iraqis." One of the main challenges now is to reassure the Sunnis that it is safe to compromise with Shiite and Kurdish leaders on issues such as the distribution of oil revenue and the shape of Iraqi federalism. Mr. Maliki must also demobilize--or at least neutralize--the militias that grew in his own Shiite community in response to Sunni violence.

But the political truth is that none of this will happen any sooner if Americans look like they are heading for the exits. Timetables and deadlines may sound like realpolitik, but they only feed suspicions that the U.S. will abandon Iraq's leaders once they have walked out onto a political limb. Iraq is not yet in a state of "civil war," and it has a functioning, if imperfect, government. If changes of tactics or force levels are needed, by all means make them. But what Iraqis most need from Washington is reassurance of support for the tough decisions and battles that lie ahead.
I'm siding with the Wall Street Journal. I have written much about Iraq. While I'm realistic about the difficulties facing U.S forces in the years ahead, I do not support an early, destabilizing withdrawal of American troops. See my Sunday entry, "The Iraq War Was No Mistake," for links to a number of recent posts debating the Iraq mission.

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