Rhetoric And Reality

Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack have a report back from their trip to Iraq in The New York Times. Both of them find that the last few months have produced great progress in securing the country:

Here is the most important thing Americans need to understand: We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms. As two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq, we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily “victory” but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with.

After the furnace-like heat, the first thing you notice when you land in Baghdad is the morale of our troops. In previous trips to Iraq we often found American troops angry and frustrated — many sensed they had the wrong strategy, were using the wrong tactics and were risking their lives in pursuit of an approach that could not work.

Today, morale is high. The soldiers and marines told us they feel that they now have a superb commander in Gen. David Petraeus; they are confident in his strategy, they see real results, and they feel now they have the numbers needed to make a real difference.

The massive chasm between the rhetoric of our political classes and the reality of our soldiers on the ground has never been wider in the history of American warfare. At the same time the Majority Leader of the Senate arrogantly tells our soldiers that the war is lost, apparently they’ve failed to get the message, since they certainly don’t seem to see it that way.

The surge has produced some preliminary results: civilian casualties are down in Baghdad and a senior leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq has been captured. Baghdad’s infrastructure is slowly being brought up, people are feeling more and more safe in their neighborhoods, and places where there was once massive bloodshed are now peaceful — perhaps an uneasy peace, but far better than what preceded it.

However, the left keeps arguing that these metrics don’t matter — it doesn’t matter that the markets are open if there are still car bombs in Baghdad. The reality is that those metrics are the most important in understanding how this war needs to be fought and won. The goal is not to eliminate car bombings in Baghdad — that’s a task that will years. It’s easy for AQI or another terrorist group to put one together and find a deluded fool to kill himself. What is much harder is to keep the population of Iraq frightened into submission — and al-Qaeda is failing miserably at that task. When al-Qaeda finds themselves kicked out of al-Anbar Province, that’s a sign that the winds in Iraq are shifting.

The problem is that the American system of government is failing more than anything else in this conflict. David Ignatius has a challenging editorial in The Washington Post about this conflict:

Future military planners will have to recognize that American democracy, in which political mandates must be renewed in two-year increments, makes us uniquely unsuited to fight protracted counterinsurgency wars. Petraeus likes to observe that it takes, on average, at least nine years to prevail in such a war. If that measure is correct, Petraeus must know there is little chance that a frustrated and angry American public will grant him enough time for success. So the question is: How to extricate ourselves in a way that minimizes the damage to the United States, its allies and Iraq?

A good start would be for Washington partisans to take deep breaths and lower the volume, so that the process of talking and fighting that must accompany a gradual U.S. withdrawal can work. Some members of Congress argue that pressure for an American troop withdrawal will persuade the Iraqis to put aside their sectarian agendas, but the opposite is more likely to be true.

However, the partisan idiocy in Washington has less of a chance of dying down than does the conflict in Iraq. Given that, it’s not all that surprising that Congress’ approval rating is abysmal, while the military remains the most trusted institution in American society. It says a great deal about the state of American democracy when our democratic institutions are looked upon with disdain, while the military continues to have broad support. It’s not the military that has failed in Iraq — quite the opposite. It’s our self-serving and blindly partisan political institutions which have failed and continue to fail. Instead of a rational decision about what the best course of action is for Iraq, it’s all about securing only one victory: the next election.

Washington believes in nothing but rhetoric, while our soldiers have to face the reality in Iraq: that everything they’ve done, all the progress that they’ve made, all that they’ve fought for could be undone for the sake of political expediency back home. Our political classes continue to betray the troops, and seem to think themselves better judges of the situation in Iraq than those who bear the responsibility for this conflict on a daily basis.

The conflict in Iraq is going to be the sort of conflict that this country will face throughout the 21st Century — and if Iraq is a harbinger of how fragile our democratic institutions will be in the face of this sort of conflict, the 21st Century will be a bloody one indeed.