Moving the Goalposts on Iraq
After spending months telling Congress to wait until a September “milestones” report before making rash decisions on Iraq, the administration is now saying it will need at least until November to have meaningful results.
The No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq said yesterday that he needs at least until November to accurately assess results of the current increase in troop strength and operations, even as senators from both parties warned U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker that time is running out.
Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said he will participate in a much-anticipated report due to Congress in mid-September, but “to do a good assessment,” he said, he would need 45 more days. Odierno cited “significant success” over the past four weeks in military operations against al-Qaeda in Iraq and in the training of Iraqi security forces, and said there has been movement toward political reconciliation.
Crocker, speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Iraqi political reconciliation “has a considerable ways to go.” At this stage, he said, his focus is less on ensuring that the Iraqi government reaches the specific legislative and security benchmarks set by Congress, and more on developing a process for government factions to work together.
“I will not present the Iraqi government as a model of smoothly functioning efficiency,” Crocker said. “Because it’s not. . . . The stresses and strains and tensions throughout society are reflected in the government.” If he had to choose one word to sum up the atmosphere at every level in Iraq, he said, “that word would be ‘fear.’ ” Replacing fear with “trust and confidence [is] what the process is all about.”
Now, I have no reason to doubt Odierno and Crocker are telling the truth. There are indeed signs of progress in Iraq on the security front; the question is whether it will be long-term or merely amounts to reshuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. And, certainly, Crocker is right: there is no reason at all for hope on the political front in the near term.
The problem, though, is a political one: “We’ll know in another six months,” derisively termed a “Friedman” in light of NYT columnist Thomas Friedman’s repeated assertions along those lines, only works so many times before people begin to think there’s no end in sight.
Many of us have repeatedly noting that imposing timetables in war is not only militarily stupid but actually counterproductive to the mission. The administration successfully managed to avoid falling into that trap for quite some time but, as the public and Congress tired of the war, they finally gave in. Now, like it or not, September is the date they’re stuck with. If the September milestones report gives reason to think staying another few months will do any good, another extension may be forthcoming. Conversely, if the report shows that the Iraqi government is not getting a handle on its political problems — and that seems the much more likely outcome — then momentum for Congressionally imposed phased withdrawal will be unstoppable.