President Bush made a surprise visit to Iraq’s al-Anbar Province today on his way to the ASEAN conference in Australia. There was a great deal of symbolism to the trip — for one, Bush was visiting a place that had been written off just over a year ago and is now seeing a grassroots renaissance that has dramatically shifted the tide in the region. Al-Qaeda once made al-Anbar the center of their attempts to forge a new Islamic caliphate under their austere interpretation of shari’a law — now, the Iraqis themselves have virtually kicked them out of the region.
The other symbolic act was in forcing Prime Minister al-Maliki to come to the heart of the Sunni province. There’s a message in that: al-Maliki has got to work with Iraq’s Sunni population if he wants any chance at peace in Iraq. If the Sunnis are backed into a corner, then they will fight back, and the results will not be good for anyone. The Baghdad government must not labor under the illusion that the Shi’a and the Kurds can work out a deal without the Sunnis — the Sunnis are holding up their part of the bargain in fighting al-Qaeda, and the al-Maliki government needs to start treating them like allies if it is to survive.
As usual, this visit has the left all in a tizzy. As usual, the arguments are the usual tinfoil hattery we’ve all come to expect from the radical netroots. It just isn’t worth listening to the same arguments over and over again — they’re all predicated on the notion that somehow Bush is the worst President ever and that Iraq is an abject failure and those conclusions need no proof more so than the confirmation bias of lefty blogs. The pure provincialism and unchecked ignorance quickly grows tiresome.
Evaluating the situation on the ground objectively, things are changing for the better in Iraq and much more quickly than they have prior to the surge. Democratization is always a long, drawn-out, and difficult process, but the security situation has improved. The real metric of that is not the artificial “benchmarks” established by Congress, but by the actions of the Iraqi people. As one milblogger reports from Iraq, there’s a lot of new glass coming in to places like al-Anbar. The Iraqi people are slowly becoming more confident and they are taking actions that a people truly thinking that their country was on the brink of exploding into civil war would not do — like putting new glass in Ramadi storefronts. Either the Iraqis are complete idiots, or they know something we don’t. The smart money is on the latter.
Much progress needs to be made, and it isn’t at all clear that the al-Maliki government can achieve the next step of political reconciliation. If not, the government will end up being replaced in new elections. Unlike previous signs of progress, the events of the past few months are happening organically — the US has simply been changing their tactics to give the Iraqis more freedom. Is Iraq finally “turning the corner?” The answer, as always, is more complex than that. Expecting Iraq to suddenly get massively better isn’t realistic — the progress will be slow and will mainly occur in places where the Western media never bothers to look.
However, that does not mean that progress is being made, and the fact that in less than a year a province which was a virtual write-off can suddenly be the site of a Presidential visit should serve as a reminder of just how fluid the situation in Iraq can be. Neither success nor failure are preordained — unless of course, we choose to fail.
UPDATE: The full text of the President’s speech in al-Anbar is now available.