Moving the Goalposts in Iraq?
In an Analysis piece fronting today’s WaPo, Karen DeYoung and Thomas Ricks argue that yesterday’s testimony by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker may well have succeeded in buying more time for the mission in Iraq.
Petraeus and Crocker have long complained that the Washington clock — with congressional demands that the time has come for Iraqis to take over their security and reconcile their political differences — is running far faster than the one in Baghdad. Yesterday, they tried to slow Washington down.
Judging by the relatively mild congressional reaction in a joint hearing of the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committees, Petraeus and Crocker may well succeed this week in deflecting Democratic demands to bring the troops home sooner rather than later. They are likely to face tougher questioning — and stiffer challenges to the emerging trends they described — from two Senate committees today. But by the time President Bush speaks to the nation later this week, September’s much-anticipated battle over Iraq policy may be all but over.
That’s an amazing conclusion from the author of FIASCO and in view of the massive tide of information pointing in the other direction.
CFR’s Robert McMahon puts it in perspective:
Ahead of their testimony, a series of other expert reports seemed to lend evidence to opponents of the surge. A new National Intelligence Estimate cites increasing divisions among Shiite factions and mounting criticism of the Shiite-led government by Sunni and Kurdish parties. The Government Accountability Office finds that the Iraqi government has met three of eighteen political and military benchmarks, and has partially met four others. A third report, from a commission of retired senior military and law enforcement officers, recommends disbanding Iraq’s national police force, largely because of sectarian divisions. Further, an opinion survey released Monday by the BBC, ABC News, and the Japanese broadcaster NHK found about 70 percent of Iraqis believe security has worsened in the sections covered by the surge in the past six months.
CFR Senior Fellows Ray Takeyh and Steven Simon says the Petraeus and Crocker reports are “irrelevant” because “the future of Iraq hinges on the outcome of its raging civil war, not on any recalibration of U.S. military strategy.” But the Iraqi prime minister said Monday that U.S.-led forces had given a boost to the country, and that Iraqi forces are not ready (VOA) to take over security responsibility.
Further, as I pointed out yesterday, there wasn’t much new in yesterday’s testimony. Those of us who follow this on a daily basis were likely underwhelmed.
Before Gen. David Petraeus’ report, and to give it a context of optimism, the president visited Iraq’s Anbar province to underscore the success of the surge in making some hitherto anarchic areas less so. More significant, however, was the fact that the president did not visit Baghdad. This underscored the fact that the surge has failed, as measured by the president’s and Petraeus’ standards of success.
Those who today stridently insist that the surge has succeeded also say they are especially supportive of the president, Petraeus and the military generally. But at the beginning of the surge, both Petraeus and the president defined success in a way that took the achievement of success out of America’s hands.
DeYoung and Ricks suggest that the testimony many have helped move the goalposts
Crocker, whose voice seemed at times tinged with sadness, said the only valid way to judge Iraq now is to understand what Saddam Hussein did to the country. He then jumped ahead, describing 2006 as “a bad year” in which Iraq nearly unraveled. Ignoring the years after the invasion and before the troop increase in which the United States unsuccessfully tried to fashion a representative government, Crocker said that “the sectarian violence of 2006 and 2007 had its seeds in Saddam’s social deconstruction, and it had dire consequences for the people of Iraq as well as its politics.”
The country, he said, “is experiencing a revolution — not just regime change. It is only by understanding this that we can appreciate what is happening in Iraq and what Iraqis have achieved, as well as maintain a sense of realism about the challenges that remain.” Realism, Crocker suggested, means suspending demands that Iraq reach 18 political and security benchmarks that Congress has set for it — few of which the Iraqis have achieved — and accepting instead more modest forms of progress. “Some of the more promising political developments at the national level,” Crocker said, “are neither measured in benchmarks nor visible to those far from Baghdad.”
The legislation that imposed the benchmarks remains in place, and Bush still owes Congress a report at the end of this week on whether they have been met. But Petraeus and Crocker succeeded to a large extent yesterday in making them irrelevant.
We’ll see, I suppose. Given that wars are fought for political objectives, having milestones to measure their success seems reasonable enough. Clearly, we haven’t achieved many of those objectives to this point and the biggest ones seem out of reach.
Then again, this isn’t the war we wanted. The insurgency was a response to our invasion, not its cause. Successful counterinsurgencies generally take years, if not decades. And they don’t respond well to timelines and checklists. Still, if the goalposts have moved, the president hasn’t mentioned it up to now.