June 17, 2005,
Suddenly it's feeling like the spring of '04 again: elite panic about Iraq, sagging Bush poll numbers, legitimate doubts about the direction of our Iraq policy.
Just as it was a year ago, the despair about our prospects in Iraq is exaggerated. But now it is beginning to issue in congressional calls for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. The insurgents should be delighted. Washington has always been a key center of gravity for the insurgency. Wearing down America's political will and forcing a premature pull-out is a prerequisite for their success. If we were ever so foolish as to announce such a timetable, Iraqis would see the writing on the wall and the political situation would decisively tilt against us there, making our continued military presence truly unsupportable. Calls for a timetable are deeply irresponsible and President Bush must and we have every expectation he will resist them.
But general statements of resolve from Bush won't be enough. He has to make a detailed case for the war, continuously. It is understandable that after the January elections the White House wanted to move onto issues besides the war that had already consumed so much of its energy in the first term. But the war has obviously never ended. Attention must be paid.
That means being careful to avoid unsupportable statements. Vice President Cheney famously said the other day that the insurgency is in its “last throes,” an implausible reading of the situation reminiscent of Secretary Rumsfeld's initial insistence two years ago that there wasn't a guerilla insurgency in Iraq. There is a case for optimism in Iraq, but if it is made in a way that seems untethered from reality and from the fact that after ebbing in the aftermath of the January elections, the insurgency is flowing again it will be dismissed out of hand.
the gung-ho enthusiasm of the American public, but he does need its patience.”
The administration's most important task is obviously to make its policy succeed. A few practical considerations:
We will have to negotiate with elements of the insurgency. The foreign jihadis will have to be killed and captured, full stop. But there are parts of the Sunni portion of the insurgency that can be engaged. The administration appears to be reluctant to do this for fear of being seen to “negotiate with terrorists.” But victories over insurgencies almost always involve some negotiated surrenders. The model should be how we dealt with Sadr last year. His forces were brought into the political process by a combination of military pressure and political persuasion, culminating in a deal that didn't represent perfect justice ideally he should be in jail but took his fighters off the battlefield.
Every instrument at our disposal has to be used to try to force Damascus to get serious about shutting down the tentacles of the insurgency within Syria. That means diplomatic pressure, sanctions, and thinly veiled threats. This is a regime that frightens easily, yet has been allowed to bleed us in Iraq for too long.
The reconstruction effort needs an overhaul. The training of Iraqi forces has benefited from occasional intense reviews that have identified its weaknesses and led to appropriate adjustments. The reconstruction program in Iraq has lost steam since the departure of Jerry Bremer, who was obsessive about it. Reliable electricity supplies are a political necessity, but we have been sliding backward on this front. The administration should send someone to Iraq with a fresh eye to review the reconstruction effort from top to bottom.
Keeping the political process on schedule is imperative, as the administration has rightly been telling the Iraqis. The International Crisis Group is calling for a delay in the writing of the constitution, an echo of the calls for a delay in the election in January. But the best propaganda tool against the insurgency is to demonstrate that the process of creating a representative, constitutional government proceeds apace, despite the insurgents' orgy of murder.
Thursday's Shiite-Sunni deal on the make-up of the constitutional committee is another sign that politics in Iraq is marching on, despite the insurgency and despite the weak leadership of Prime Minister Jaafari. The more Sunnis that are brought into the legitimate political process, the further isolated and weakened the insurgency should become. But this will take time and involve maddening fits and starts and unsatisfactory compromises. The training of Iraqi forces will take time as well. Have the numbers of trained Iraqis forces been exaggerated? Have those forces sometimes been disappointing in the field? Yes and yes. But we are making incremental progress every day toward more self-sufficient Iraqi forces.
At this point, President Bush doesn't need the gung-ho enthusiasm of the American public, but he does need its patience. He has to explain how victory in Iraq protects Americans’ security, and how defeat would endanger it. If we succeed in creating a decent, stable government in Iraq, it could shift the geo-political balance in the region against radicalism, ending its status as a caldron of murderous anti-Americanism. If we fail, Iraq might well break up and a rump Sunni-stan become a haven for terrorists that we will, sooner or later, have to try to clean out again.
The spring of '04 was a trough before a turnaround. The last few months may yet prove to be the same.