Time to get real in Iraq debate

NOW THAT we’ve put a fortnight and more between us and the Petraeus testimony, can we go ahead and have a realistic, honest, come-to-Jesus kind of discussion about Iraq?
    I think we can. The “surge” has created that opportunity.
    The idea behind Gen. David Petraeus’ strategy was this: Apply enough force in the right places, and you can create a secure space in which a political settlement can be achieved.
    The promised measure of security has been achieved. Just as importantly, there is broader acceptance in this country that significant U.S. forces will be staying in Iraq for some time. The consistently implied threat that we might yank our troops out at any moment contributed greatly to insecurity in that nation — encouraging terrorists, and discouraging would-be allies from working with us against the terrorists.
    For the moment, that threat is gone. If it wasn’t obvious before, it was certainly on display at a Democratic candidates’ debate at Dartmouth last week. The three candidates most likely to win their party’s presidential nomination moved beyond the fantasy that’s been offered too often to their base — that we could have the troops out of Iraq before George W. Bush leaves the White House. They acknowledged that in fact, we can’t even promise to be out by the time the next president’s first term is up in 2013.
    That was a significant step. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards have walked a razor’s edge for some time, trying to say things that please the “pull ’em out now!” constituency, while at the same time leaving themselves room to be pragmatic and sensible later on, should they be so fortunate as to find themselves in a general election campaign.
    This can sometimes lead to dissonance. For instance, in the debate, Barack Obama repeated confusing assertions he made in an op-ed column in The State, in which he first said “all of our combat brigades should be out of Iraq by the end of next year.” But his very next words were “We will then need to retain some forces to strike at al-Qaida in Iraq.” OK, if all of the combat units are out, what will we “strike at” them with? Boy Scouts? Or will the units used to “strike” be smaller than brigade strength? If so, how effective do we think they’ll be? Isn’t this a return to the “less is more,” minimalist force approach that led to the failures of the thoroughly discredited Donald Rumsfeld? If we’re going to free up “combat brigades” from other, nonspecified tasks, why don’t we send them after al-Qaida too?
    But the magic number “2013” provides a measure of clarity. It says, We’re there. We’re going to be there. So what are we going to do now?
    The question works both ways. Once Democrats accept that we can’t bug out, they can start getting real about what maintaining a commitment means. One answer was offered last week. The Senate majority took a break from futile, please-the-base gestures long enough to join in a bipartisan resolution supporting the idea of dividing Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions — a proposal long advocated by Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sam Brownback.
    But “What next?” applies with equal force to Republicans who backed the “surge” all along: Now that our soldiers have done their job, where’s the political settlement in Baghdad?
    Sen. Lindsey Graham surprised some last week when he told TIME magazine that he’s willing to give the Maliki government until Christmas to get its act together, and not much more than that.
    What? Is one of the biggest fans of the surge, as “never say die” as anyone, ready to throw in the towel? No. But with the U.S. military having done, and continuing to do, its job, no one can make excuses for an Iraqi government that doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity thus provided.
    “The challenges and the problem areas in Iraq are not lost on me as a big fan of the surge,” he told me over the phone Friday. “I’m trying to let people know that when you say the political is not moving at the appropriate pace, I agree with you, and I acknowledge” it.
    “I want people to acknowledge the security gains, because they’re real, and quit trying to minimalize them. That’s just not fair.” Nor would it be fair or reasonable, he suggested, for him or anybody else to make excuses for political stalemate.
    “I would be the first to say, 90 days from now, if they haven’t delivered anything… regarding the major political reconciliation benchmarks, that it would be clear to me they’ve gone from just being dysfunctional to a failure,” Sen. Graham said.
    At that point, “We need to look at a new model: Is it wise to give more money to the same people when it’s clear they don’t know what they’re doing, or are incapable of performing?”
    That does not, of course, mean pulling our troops out. It is the continued troop presence that gives us the options we have — and puts the onus on the Iraqi government.
    For his part, Sen. Graham was not among the three-fourths of the Senate that endorsed Sen. Biden’s partition. To him, giving in to the idea that Sunni and Shi’a can never live together is as objectionable as endorsing Apartheid as a way of keeping the peace in South Africa.
    Others disagree. But the wonderful thing is that we are now disagreeing about a way forward, rather than arguing about how quickly we can back out.
    With progress like that, I can actually believe that a political solution can be achieved — in Iraq and, yes, even in Washington.

14 thoughts on “Time to get real in Iraq debate

  1. Karen McLeod

    Maybe we can manage partition; but leaving our troops there for an extended period of time in order to deal with terrorists is counterproductive. The reason the terrorists are there is because our forces are there. Iraq did not obviously harbor terrorists before we invaded. The “security gains” are going to last only as long as our troop strength remains high, and we cannot continue this level of troop strength for long. Whatever we do, t’were best done quickly, because the longer we stay, the more difficult the job will become. Iraq is draining forces needed elsewhere (e.g. Afghanistan), exhausting our ability to respond quickly, and using up financial resources for years to come. And what for? We are trying to impose upon another nation a form of government foreign to it. We are staying in another country that pretty clearly would prefer that we leave.

  2. Michael Rodgers

    Yes, let’s go ahead and have a realistic, honest, discussion about the way forward. To do so, I suggest not going all Zell Miller (what will our military fight with … spitballs?) on Barack Obama. Yes those two sentences from Barack Obama’s article are confusing. So point it out, ask him about it, and move on to the realistic, honest discussion.
    I agree with Lindsay Graham and I disagree with Joe Biden. Our military did its job: they got rid of Saddam Hussein, reported back about the (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction, and provided security for the Iraqi people to vote to establish their government.
    What are we still doing there? According to Biden, we’re there to re-establish the Iraq government in a totally different, ethnically partitioned, way. I think this view is wrong. If the Iraqi people want a different system of government, then they can figure it out themselves. That’s not our job.
    As you say, the onus is on the Iraq government. The Iraq government is accountable to the Iraqi people. The Iraq government is accountable to us because we give them aid. Our troops have successfully given them the political room to make tough decisions. If they don’t make sensible decisions very soon (as in Lindsay Graham’s position), then we should withdraw our military presence. We should continue to provide economic aid.
    What are we still doing in Iraq? Iraq has a government, and the government is inviting us to stay to do some police and infrastructure work. We do what we can, and it costs a fortune, and our troops are getting killed. The big contractors are gone, the British are gone, and a lot of Iraqis have left. From an economic efficiency argument, we should not be in Iraq doing the work. Iraqis should do the work that the Iraq government wants done. We can help by providing economic and other assistance, and we can bring our troops home.
    What are we still doing in Iraq? Oh, I remember, it’s the front in the War on Terror! We’re there to kill terrorists. We decided that Iraq would be a better host country for such actions than the USA, and we invited the terrorists into Iraq to fight our military (bring ’em on!). Well, terrorists are in Pakistan, England, Germany, Sudan, USA, and in lots of places. A better strategy for reducing terrorism worldwide is to bring our troops home and to restore our image as a generous and wise benefactor instead of as an imperialistic and clumsy warmonger.
    In summary, Iraq is a country like any other country. They ask for assistance and we give it to them as we can. Giving military assistance is no longer warranted because the Iraq government prefers not to benefit from having our troops there. Focusing so much military action on Iraq provides training and inspiration for terrorists. Terrorism can be reduced by instead focusing on worldwide partnerships, economic and political development, and responsible leadership.
    Michael Rodgers
    Columbia, SC

  3. Doug Ross

    >> The idea behind Gen. David Petraeus’
    >> strategy was this: Apply enough force in
    >> the right places, and you can create a
    >> secure space in which a political
    >> settlement can be achieved.
    Can you refresh my memory? Who was responsible for reporting to Congress on how successful the Petraeus strategy turned out?
    Oh, wait, it was Petraeus. I guess I would have put some large money on the General saying his strategy was successful. There aren’t a whole lot of generals in the military who are known for admitting they were wrong. Failure is not an option and all that baloney…
    Now, the GAO had a slightly different (less biased) view of the “success”.
    Your entire premise hinges on Petraeus claiming his strategy worked.

  4. Brad Warthen

    Actually, Doug, I heard a general owning up to a mistake just last night. There was nothing new about it; I’d read and heard this several places before. But on “The War” last night, I heard once again the assertion by Gen. Eisenhower that Operation Market Garden was not just something he agreed to to placate Montgomery, but Ike “insisted on it.”
    A lot of Americans wanted to blame that on the Brits, since it was Monty’s big idea. But for the rest of his life, Ike would take full responsibility.
    I’m sure we could come up with other examples if we searched; that one was just fresh in my mind.
    But Doug, we knew before Gen. Petraeus showed up in that hearing room that the surge had succeeded in improving security in the areas where it was applied; that was pretty much the consensus among observers over the last few months, since about June.
    That’s why there wasn’t a stronger rebuttal to the general from any mainstream voices. That’s why the MoveOn.org thing stood out the way it did. If there had been a strong rebuttal for mainstream war opponents to offer to what the general said, we would have heard it.
    Now Crocker was a different matter. Why? Because the facts were different. Petraeus was responsible for the military side, and that has generally been seen as successful; Crocker’s unfortunate lot was to babysit the political process, which has NOT been the success that was hoped for.
    So sensible war opponents concentrated on THAT as a way of saying “the surge failed,” and that is a valid argument, if you’re inclined to put it that way. The facts that lead to that conclusion have a lot to do with what Graham is saying.

  5. bud

    The promised measure of security has been achieved.
    That’s nonsense. Hundreds of Iraqi’s are still dying each month. Because of the “success” of ethnic cleansing, a staggering exodus on the part of the Iraqi people and a decline in numbers due to the previous slaughter there are fewer targets for insurgents and hence a drop in overall civilian deaths. But to claim there has been any bonafide success in the security situation goes against ALL objective reports on the stiuation. (See Doug’s comments).

  6. Hubert

    General Petraeus strategy? You mean the speech he read that Bush wrote.
    Look back over Bush’s oil war. Any time a General disagreed with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld he was fired or replaced. I think Patraeus is the only General ever shot by his own men. Well..maybe excet Stonewall Jackson.

  7. Brad Warthen

    “bud” must have spent the last few months making loud noises while holding his hands over his ears, if he sees the general’s report in isolation.
    Did you not notice that there was an anticlimactic effect to his testimony? That’s because we’d already heard the basic facts of what he was going to say. The picture that has emerged the last few months, oversimplified, has been “military situation good; political situation bad.”

  8. Brad Warthen

    Let’s get this straight, “Hubert:” You look at David Petraeus and George W. Bush, and between them you decide that BUSH is the brains in the outfit?
    It’s amazing the lengths people will go to to see what they want to see.

  9. bud

    …. military situation good.
    ABOLUTELY, POSITIVELY NOT TRUE. Facts Brad, facts. Not a recitation of the administrations talking points. Not a repeat of talk radio spin. You offer no facts so I must assume you have none to offer. On average at least 4,000 civilians have been killed in sectarian violence over the past 3 months. Electricity is only on in some places for about an hour per day. American soldiers continue to die at a rate in excess of 2 per day. Millions of Iraqis have fled the country. The president is asking for an additional $190 billion dollars, the largest amount ever because of so much destruction to our military assets. Mortar fire continues to reign down on the green zone. You are simply flat out wrong that the security situation in Iraq is improved. So don’t keep saying it as if it were a genuine, bonafide fact. It simply ain’t so.

  10. bud

    This is for all my anti-occupation friends out there. All you pro-occupation folks out there need not read any more.
    We absolutely, positively must fight this ongoing false claim that the situation in Iraq is getting better. Those of us that oppossed the Iraq war from the start were negligent in not calling the administration on it’s claims of WMD and the security risks posed by Saddam when all this came up in 2002/03. Just because someone wears a uniform with lots of ribbons and medals does not mean he is trustworthy. That was proven with Colin Powell’s false testimony before the U.N.
    Now they’re trying again. The neo-con spin machine is promoting this very false notion that Iraq is now somehow a better place because we put 30,000 extra troops in. That has been debunked by the GAO report. Heck, even General Petraeus himself is saying that Al-Qaeda is launching a month of Ramadan “surge”. So let’s not give the pro-occupation side one inch on this. Let’s not let them off the hook. They’ve fed us false promises before and frankly and sick of all the nonsense they spout. Our country is worse off because of the false claims that continue to be made. And I for one refuse to stand for it anymore.

  11. Doug Ross

    I’ll believe the surge is working when Lindsey Graham and John McCain drive a car from the green zone to the airport without a military escort.

  12. Doug Ross

    Here’s my question for the day: If the surge is working now, which Republican Senators and Joint Chiefs were saying the military strategy of 2004,2005, and 2006 WASN’T working then?
    It’s always the party line…

  13. Mike Cakora

    bud –
    More bad news:

    BAGHDAD (AP) – The number of American troops and Iraqi civilians killed in the war fell in September to levels not seen in more than a year. The U.S. military said the lower count was at least partly a result of new strategies and 30,000 additional U.S. forces deployed this year.

    I spent part of my distinguished six-year military career in what used to be West Berlin, almost thirty stinking years after the end of the big one, WW II. For my service there 1972-1975 I was awarded the Army of Occupation ribbon. Imagine that, still occupying after all those years.
    Am I to take it that this good news is bad in your view? It sure seems so. Is this bad news too: Last letter from doomed Al Qaida chief: ‘We are so desperate for your help.’ I hope not. We’ve a long way to go.
    The legislature went on vacation for the month of August and seems unable to gain any sort of consensus with the executive; since its return in September they can’t seem to pass squat, and so on. You know the story, and if you think that this Readers’ Digest version of the US Congress is bad, the metric version over in Iraq — called “Parliament” — is pretty durn close.
    It takes a clear head and a good heart to think clearly. I suggest that you work on both.

  14. bud

    Great, we now celebrate nearly 1,000 Iraqi civilians slaughtered as good news. If this is to be believed, and considering the source I’m skeptical, the numbers are down, but only because they were so high in the first place! The rate of slaughter was simply not sustainable.
    For the sake of the hapless Iraqi people let’s hope the situation continues to improve but we shouldn’t use this as an excuse to stay on. We should plan on withdrawing all our forces within 6 months regardless of the security situation at any given moment. I’m sure the British had good months when they vainly tried to bring order to Iraq in the 1920s. In the end the British recognized the futility of staying and decided to move on. Apparently they’re doing the same in 2007. Good for them.
    One last thing, is the example of Germany really something we should be proud of? We’re spending a huge pile of money to stay and apparently we’re welcome there, but is that something we should continue to spend taxpayers money on? Since the end of the cold war I’m not sure what purpose that serves.


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