Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, both senior fellows at the Brookings Institution, considered by many a liberal think tank, published on July 30 a column in the New York Times that immediately caused ripples in the leftist anti-war community.
The lede was startlingly blunt: “Viewed from Iraq, where we just spent eight days meeting with American and Iraqi military and civilian personnel, the political debate in Washington is surreal. The Bush administration has over four years lost essentially all credibility. Yet now the administration’s critics, in part as a result, seem unaware of the significant changes taking place.”
And the second paragraph, written by two thoughtful consistent critics of President Bush’s prosecution of the war, was a stunner: “Here is the most important thing Americans need to understand: We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms. As two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq, we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily “victory” but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with.”
The significant changes on the ground reported by O’Hanlon and Pollack are not likely to affect the ground war in the U.S. Congress between hawks and doves. At home, the congressional forces that back or reprehend the surge in Iraq have dug in their heels; but then, it should surprise no one that decisions made in the Congress are deeply rooted in political considerations rather than, as ardent anti-war Democrats sometime insist, real politick.
Over the past few years, the Bush administration radically changed its policy in Iraq – largely as a result of clear headed political opposition -- and, inferentially at least, admitted the abject failure of its earlier policy, a political consideration that anti-war Democrats are powerless to exploit politically, so long as it is politically expedient for them to insist that the surge is an abject failure.
In their most recent trip to Iraq, O’Hanlon and Pollack found:
A surge in the moral of the troops: “Today, morale is high. The soldiers and marines told us they feel that they now have a superb commander in Gen. David Petraeus; they are confident in his strategy, they see real results, and they feel now they have the numbers needed to make a real difference.”
A more harmonious relationship between the troops, Sunni and Shiite military units and the general population in many previously war ruptured areas: “We traveled to the northern cities of Tal Afar and Mosul. This is an ethnically rich area, with large numbers of Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens. American troop levels in both cities now number only in the hundreds because the Iraqis have stepped up to the plate. Reliable police officers man the checkpoints in the cities, while Iraqi Army troops cover the countryside. A local mayor told us his greatest fear was an overly rapid American departure from Iraq. All across the country, the dependability of Iraqi security forces over the long term remains a major question mark.”
A popular animus – no doubt the result of extreme measures imposed on local populations by Al Qaeda and other Salafist groups – against military jihadists: “In war, sometimes it’s important to pick the right adversary, and in Iraq we seem to have done so. A major factor in the sudden change in American fortunes has been the outpouring of popular animus against Al Qaeda and other Salafist groups, as well as (to a lesser extent) against Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. These groups have tried to impose Shariah law, brutalized average Iraqis to keep them in line, killed important local leaders and seized young women to marry off to their loyalists. The result has been that in the last six months Iraqis have begun to turn on the extremists and turn to the Americans for security and help.”
A wholesome and productive decentralization of power from the central government to the provinces: “…the Iraqi National Police, which are controlled by the Interior Ministry, remain mostly a disaster. In response, many towns and neighborhoods are standing up local police forces, which generally prove more effective, less corrupt and less sectarian.”
The gravest hurdles remain on the political front in Iraq: “Iraqi politicians of all stripes continue to dawdle and maneuver for position against one another when major steps towards reconciliation — or at least accommodation — are needed. This cannot continue indefinitely. Otherwise, once we begin to downsize, important communities may not feel committed to the status quo, and Iraqi security forces may splinter along ethnic and religious lines.”
Similar hurdles may be seen in the U.S. Congress. If they can be overcome, Iraq just might have a chance at survival.