What was surprising about the Patraeus-Crocker testimonies is that they were so unsurprising. They fell neatly into the some-progress-some disappointments-give-us-more-time-to-let-the-surge-work category just as expected. What was never fully addressed was the fact that the “surge” was proposed as a means of giving the Maliki government time to pull itself together and make political progress. Instead the Iraqi parliament went on vacation while our troops remained on the front lines – – political reconciliation? Not quite.
To suggest that political progress has been made at all is to ascribe importance to the smallest of baby steps. And using Anbar province where Sunnis represent only 5% of the nation’s population as evidence of an emerging grass-roots movement is to ignore the conflicted nature of the Iraqi landscape. It isn’t that progress of any sort isn’t a good thing; it’s just that relying on military assessments of regional improvements are not reliable measures of whether or not the “surge” has had the desired effect or holds the key to future success.
What has become obvious is that, failing any internalized strategy of his own for moving ahead, redeploying or exiting, the president has ceded authority to the military. That means the country’s fortunes are now being directed not by elected civilian leaders but by “the generals in the field” as if only they were qualified to shape the nation’s foreign policy. We have arrived at a place where everyone seems to have forgotten or is willing to ignore what our original goals were said to be and where “winning” is as ill-defined as ever.
Without questioning the expertise and sincerity of General Patraeus and Ambassador Crocker, it is possible nonetheless to question some of their assertions and the premises upon which they have based their analyses. In fact the very nature of the new spirit of cooperation in Anbar is proof of the disparate factions at work in the country as a whole. If it can be said that sectarian violence has diminished, that may be due more to the successful purging of Sunnis or Shiites in various sectors than to any calming of sectarian angst. Once Shiites expel all the Sunnis from a given neighborhood, for example, and claim their property and homes, there’s really no-one left to kill, just a lot of angry displaced Sunnis.
Some of the statistics in the Patraeus reportappear to be subjective rather than objective, seemingly designed to put a better face on claims that the surge has produced positive results. Thus, totals only include certain kinds of deaths to sustain, apparently, the desired political message. There are strange evaluations such as the one about a bullet to the front of the head constituting an act of criminality whereas one to the back of the head relates to insurgent activity, as if that actually made a difference. In reality all deaths from whatever source indicate an unacceptable level of violence that remains beyond the control of an ill-trained often corrupt and overly sectarian police force.
And so we are told, as if it were the most normal of all outcomes, that our troops will need to remain in Iraq well into 2008 or the entire world will come unglued. And Republicans in Congress are back to ranting about patriotism, the unassailable attributes of General Patraeus and Democratic intransigence. Yet military strategies fail to chart a course for the political solutions everyone agrees must form the basis for real progress in Iraq and the region. If there is one form of governance capable of establishing some level of security and economic viability it will probably depend, as Retired Lt. General Odom suggests, on “who can tax” and build an effective state apparatus down to the village level.”
Local entities may simply become a series of armed enclaves however – – a continuum of divisive ethnic/sectarian patterns. The “unity” government celebrated by the Bush administration is heavily infused with Shiite ideologues and anti-Baathists and seems incapable of delivering anything resembling a national consensus, nor is it clear that Maliki and his supporters see that as a political goal. So we find ourselves in the position of supporting all sides of a civil divide without any real understanding of where we’re headed.
Continuing to couch foreign policy in terms of victory or defeat in Iraq fails to define any real strategy for progress. And when Patraeus and the president make the grand gesture of bringing some troops home by Christmas or reducing the number of troops to pre-surge levels they are just toying with the American people once again. Anyone who has been paying attention realizes that troop reductions have been a foregone conclusion for some time and that they only represent a return to the status quo or, more specifically, a standstill.
In light of all the hoopla surrounding the Patraeus report it is worth revisiting General Odom’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January – – The Bush Administration broke with “the proper strategic aim” of maintaining regional stability by invading Iraq and threatening the regime in Iran. “It presumed the policy of spreading democracy in Iraq would lead to regional stability. In fact…spreading democracy by force of arms has become the main source of regional instability.” And Odom concluded “Any new strategy that does [not] realistically promise to achieve regional stability at a cost we can prudently bear and does not regain the confidence and support of our allies, is doomed to failure. To date I have seen no awareness that any political leader in this country has gone beyond tactical proposals to offer a different strategic approach to limiting the damage in a war that is turning out to be the greatest strategic disaster in our history.”

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