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.

George Will has a column out today entitled (at RealClear Politics, at least) “By Bush’s Own Standard, Surge Has Failed.” [Update: WaPo headlined it, “A War Still Seeking a Mission.”]

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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Still, if the goalposts have moved, the president hasn’t mentioned it up to now.

    I would argue that the goalposts have been constantly shifting and that the surge itself, with its focus on security in Anbar and Diyala, was goalpost moving in and of itself (not that the administration called it that). The political side, which is where success will be made or lost (and I am betting on lost), yet the focus shifted to short term security some months ago.

  2. legion says:

    an Analysis piece fronting today’s WaPo

    Ahhh… that tells you all you need to know right there. Any lack of basic relation to reality in the article is completely explained.

    Then again, this isn’t the war we wanted. The insurgency was a response to our invasion, not its cause.

    Which is something any number of qualified, competent people told anyone who’d listen would happen _years ago_. How can anyone, you included James, even _pretend_ to still be surprised?

  3. Barry says:

    Because it’s required to be a Serious Person in the inside-the-beltway crowd, I fear.

    One of the important lessons (from the pampered American viewpoint) of this has been that the people in charge can spend years screwing things up, lying, BS-ing, and failing abysmally, and sill there is no shortage of people providing political cover.

    James: “That’s an amazing conclusion from the author of FIASCO and in view of the massive tide of information pointing in the other direction. ”

    I’ve skimmed Rick’s blog a few times, and feel that he’s very conflicted. He’s realized that (a) the war has been is and will be a failure and (b) the people running it have long since ceased to care – they’re in salvage mode. However, the obvious conclusions from that are not politically acceptable to the inside-the-beltway crowd of imperial propagandists foreign policy analysts. So he’s got a problem, and writes things which don’t hold together. This, of course, also gives him that sweet spot of being a ‘war opponent’ who supports various military actions.

    Also, when Ricks is talking about the effect on Washington politics, he is talking about the effect on Washington politics – whether a polticial effort has achieved a particular political goal.

    In this case, the goal of the administration is to buy more time, to run out the clock. In January, 2009, the administration can dump the war in the next president’s lap, proclaim that ‘we were winning when we left’, and go on to a luxurious retirement. If Petraeus’ and Crocker’s testimony accomplishes some time-buying, then it was successful. It’s not like they’re going to win the actual war, of course.

  4. James Joyner says:

    How can anyone, you included James, even _pretend_ to still be surprised?

    I didn’t say I was surprised. I’ve said for months now (long before I know the Atlantic Council was hiring or, indeed, before I was contemplating looking for a new position) that the political objectives we set out to achieve appear to be unattainable.

    My point here is merely that moving the goalposts isn’t totally unreasonable, given that the game changed once we started playing. I agree that there were many that warned of the possibility of a major insurgency breaking out but, clearly, the administration calculated otherwise when putting forth its ambitious goals.

    I’ve skimmed Rick’s blog a few times, and feel that he’s very conflicted. . . . So he’s got a problem, and writes things which don’t hold together.

    I think that much is right. Everything in between, I think, is unnecessary and probably wrong.

    The reason the “inside-the-beltway crowd of foreign policy analysts” are less committed to rapid pullout than MoveOn and the Kos Kids and less gung ho for staying the course and moving on the Iran than the neo-con enthusiasts is that reality is pretty damned complicated.

    Most of the foreign policy analysts I knew (granted, mostly outside-the-beltway types back then) opposed the war. Now that we’re in it hip deep, though, we’re left with no good options and whole lot of What If’s that can’t be computed. That leaves few of us very confident in our policy prescriptions.

  5. Andy says:

    Now that we’re in it hip deep, though, we’re left with no good options and whole lot of What If’s that can’t be computed.

    Surely waiting another six months will completely clarify the situation.

  6. legion says:

    I think that much is right. Everything in between, I think, is unnecessary and probably wrong.

    No James, Barry has it exactly right. Ricks, and you, and a lot of other people either on or leaning right – even after taking note of the actual state of affairs in Iraq, Afghanistan, the US, and the world at large – seem constitutionally incapable of taking these observations to their logical conclusion. The big problem the US faces right now is not Osama bin Laden. It’s not AQ. It’s not even “terror” in the larger sense. It’s the absolute criminal negligence this administration has displayed in every single aspect of governing this country.

    Barry is completely correct when he says that those in power don’t really care about winning (for any realistic value of the word) the war in Iraq or even the GWOT – they are purely in CYA mode. Bush has given up any pretense of seriously completing any task he’s taken on & is willfully abandoning his responsibilities to focus on spinning his “legacy”, which will now be leaving the biggest global mess any President has ever created to future generations, with no sense of responsibility, guilt, or shame at all.

    Until Bush leaves office, either by election or at the point of an impeachment, NOTHING WILL CHANGE. You’ve been told this time and time and time again, but you still still treat every piece of obvious propaganda from the WH as a potential ‘turning point’.

  7. Michael says:

    My point here is merely that moving the goalposts isn’t totally unreasonable, given that the game changed once we started playing.

    The problem is that the “game change” replaced your foot ball with a bowling ball, and no amount of goalpost moving is going to help you. The goal itself needs to change.

  8. cian says:

    The BBC poll of Iraqi reaction to the surge suggests the GAO report was correct and Petreaus’s presentation a pr stunt.

    Over 70% of Iraqis feel the surge has made things worse for ordinary Iraqis but better for the militias on both sides and for the various factions in parliament as it allows them to continue their power grabs and ethnic cleansing unmolested.

    In return we get more dead and wounded and billions spent to prop up Bush’s policy of staying in Iraq until his term ends and he gets to replenish the old coffers.

  9. markg8 says:

    Will ends his article with “Is there an Iraq? Are there Iraqis?”

    The answer is yes and yes. And most of them want us out of Iraq. I’d want anybody who did to the USA what we did to Iraq out of my country if they did that here too.

    Rummy was right about one single thing. You don’t want Iraqis getting dependent on us the way the South Vietnamese did or the Kosovars are now. When we left Saigon the effects of taking all those GIs and their paychecks out of the South Vietnamese economy coupled with the first oil embargo crippled their economy. God knows what would happen in Kosovo if we shut down Camp Bondsteel.

    From listening to Petraeus and Crocker though paying off the Sunnis and Shiites is exactly what we’re doing now. When the only job in town is joining the local police force in Fallujah or some Shiite neighborhood you take it. You get your weapons cheap from whoever has those 190,000 AK-47s Petraeus misplaced (or Jordan or Iran) while he pretends not to notice and wait. And when we eventually leave that $300 a month for all those guys goes away too without paying jobs to replace them. If you’re trying to make sure there is the biggest street fight possible when we leave that’s the way to do it.

    In case you don’t get the gist of this message I’m saying the current strategy of building local support will in the long run cause a collapse when we leave and coupled with making sure every enclave is armed will probably make for a much worse civil war. Looks like a perfect neocon-Rovian plan. Leave Iraq the biggest ticking IED possible for the next president and then blame him/her for making your predictions of disaster come true when it blows skyhigh.