Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

13 September 2007

Iraq’s Last Chance

In the aftermath of General Petraeus’ and Ambassador Crocker’s testimony, a single question troubles everyone’s mind. Has anything in Iraq really changed?

Political reconciliation is on the ropes. Violence and sectarian hatred still rule Iraq’s streets. Doubters accuse the Bush Administration—and even Petraeus and Crocker themselves—of cooking the books on the grim statistics of civil war and insurgency. Supporters have to use a microscope to see any improvement.

But two things have changed in Iraq. In the grand scheme of things, they are significant, although neither has much directly to do with the surge.

The first big change is something about which modesty precludes Petraeus and Crocker from commenting. From all accounts, Bush and his team began planning to invade Iraq in the very first months of their Administration. That means they’ve been at it for almost seven years. In all that time, we’ve never had outstanding operational leadership. Now we do.

That’s what happens in wartime. As war’s seriousness and loss impinge on the national psyche, sycophancy, political pandering, glad-handing and bureaucratic skill become less attractive. The go-along-to-get-along mentality gets replaced by knowing what you are doing. War demands it.

It can take a long time for that to happen. It did in our own Civil War. Lincoln went through several generals before he found an ex-drunk named U.S. Grant who could hope to match wits with Robert E. Lee. It certainly took a long time here. Four years of heavy casualties and countless blunders were a high price to pay.

But change has finally come, and with wartime speed. General Petraeus went right from two stars to four, and he deserved it. He has MacArthur’s intelligence and skill, without the arrogance. You don’t have to be a soldier or military strategist to see that he is the best thing our Defense Department has seen anywhere near Iraq in seven years.

Ambassador Crocker is much the same. Intelligent, fluent in two Iraqi languages, persistent, and frank, he is capable of tackling a nearly impossible task and seems eager to do so.

Sure, the hour is late. Sure, the Administration’s many blunders have left Petraeus and Crocker trying to bail out a swimming pool with a teaspoon. Sure, we still could use the 300,000 troops that we should have had there from the beginning. But, for the first time in seven years, we have outstanding operational leadership. That’s something.

Not only that. Two other factors increase the benefits of the two men’s competence. First, they work together like hand and glove. Not for Petraeus is Rumsfeld’s oafish desire to control everything and decide nothing. Both men realize the job is more political than military, and they work well together. Second, George W. Bush, having exhausted all of his and his cronies’ ideological stupidity, now seems inclined to follow the advice of people who actually know what they are doing.

The second change has been much discussed, but its implications are broader than has been generally realized. Sunni sheikhs in Anbar and a few other places have begun to work with Coalition forces to stop Al Qaeda’s terrible and pointless mayhem. They are offering their sons to take their streets back with the aid of our weapons and training.

This point has broad implications. For the first time since our invasion, all three major groups in Iraq are beginning to see us as a benign force—or at least more benign than the other forces they are fighting. The Kurds have always seen us that way because our “no fly” zone protected them from Saddam and allowed them to develop their thriving democracy. The Shiites initially saw us that way because we got rid of Saddam’s vicious tyranny, although some have come to see us differently since. Now the Sunnis are beginning to understand that we are not there to oppress them or to hand their future to the Shiites, but only want to stop Al Qaeda and the violence and leave.

Of course these views are not universal among any of the three groups, with the possible exception of the Kurds. Many Shiites and Sunnis still see us as infidel occupiers. But Muqtada al Sadr has promised to stand down his Mahdi Army for six months. Most Shiites and Sunnis are now grudgingly willing to work with us, if only to take advantage of our support, weapons and training for a coming Armageddon with each other.

If this analysis is right, a virtuous circle might replace the vicious circle we have seen since the bombing of the Golden Mosque. As more Iraqis come to see us as benign—and our congressional debates as a guarantee that we won’t be there forever—fewer of them will target our troops. As more Iraqis come to see foreign jihadis, Al Qaeda, extremists, and criminals as their enemies, and not us, they will work to suppress our biggest sources of casualties.

In other words, there is a possibility that our own casualties may decrease, perhaps even faster than Iraqi casualties. If that happens, the losses that matter most to us may decrease, reducing some of the political pressure for untimely withdrawal and allowing us to recede from a combat role.

If this analysis is more than wishful thinking, we have been looking at the wrong benchmarks for success. We shouldn’t be looking at violence, whose causes and motives are hard to interpret. Nor should we be looking at Iraqi casualties, which are notoriously hard to measure. We should be looking at our own casualties, which we record and measure with mathematical precision. If they go down, then the favorable virtuous circle suggested here may be in place. If they go up, it is not.

The second benchmark is political. But it is not the kind of political progress that requires analysis to interpret. It is simply whether the long-promised provincial elections have occurred and, if they have, the kinds of people who are elected.

In the grand scheme of things, local elections may be the most important benchmark of all. They far are more important than oil sharing, especially now that, according to Crocker, the central government is starting to pass revenue to Sunni provinces even without a governing law in place.

Local elections are vital. They will foster, encourage, and build upon the “bottom up” reorganization of Iraqi society that Petraeus and Crocker hope is beginning. More than that, the type of people the various factions and regions elect will tell us whether they are preparing for a peaceful society or an all-out war when we leave.

The four years since our invasion have been at least as long for the Iraqis as for us. Those who have not fled their country have had four long years to reflect upon whom they can trust, who will keep their communities safe, and who will build a society that they might like to live in. They have had plenty of time to decide whether they want peace or the same kind of near-perpetual war that leveled Afghanistan. It is past time to let them pick their leaders and show their cards, town by town and province by province.

Will the Sunni sheikhs now cooperating with us stand for election or send their surrogates or proxies to do so? Will their communities support them?

Whom will the Shiites in the cities pick to lead them? Will they pick followers of al Sadr or al Hakim? Whom will they pick to lead their local communities? Will they elect extremists, anti-Americans, or imams with no political experience? Or will they go for practical folk who can protect their lives and property, keep the electricity flowing and get the sewage off the streets? It is past time for the Shiites, too, to show what they want, collectively, after four years of staring into the abyss.

The way to build democracy is to build democracy. As Tip O’Neill pointed out, all politics is local. Local elections will tell us and the Iraqis far more about whether they are ready to govern themselves than any attempt to parse or cook elusive statistics on daily mayhem caused by a tiny fraction of the population. Local elections will give us a glimpse at Iraq’s future, not its grim past or uncertain present.

So what should we do? I yield to no one in despising George W. Bush, whose patent flaws in intelligence and character have laid our country low and nearly destroyed Iraq. But our decisions about Iraq must be about Iraq, not our own poor electoral choices or domestic troubles. If for the first time ever we have outstanding leadership there, and if the Sunnis’ change of heart has given us our first lucky break, shouldn’t we at least see where these changes lead?

Our two best benchmarks are our own casualties and local elections. If the first goes down and the second go up, there may be room for progress. If the opposite occurs, then Bush and his awful crew will have screwed up the mission beyond repair. In that case we should get out as soon as we can do so safely and with due care for Iraqis who risked their lives to help us and the cause of democracy. We should be able to make that call by next spring or, if earlier, shortly after local elections.

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