Optimism, But Cautious Optimism

Ed Morrissey strikes the right note in looking at the situation in Iraq, responding to Kimberly Kagan’s very optimistic piece in The Wall Street Journal. Morrissey reminds us:

We’ve seen progress before in Iraq, only to see setbacks later. That’s the nature of war; few conflicts have ever seen one-sided momentum from beginning to end. American experience in war shows this in almost every conflict except perhaps Grenada and Panama. People who know their history understand not to panic when things go poorly for a while. We haven’t yet seen a North Africa-style reversal in this war, nor a Dieppe, Kasserine Pass, or even an Anzio.

It’s also important to take care in snap analyses of success. The enemy adapts, too, and what works for a couple of months may stop working at some point. The best way to keep that from happening is to stay on the offensive, a lesson we finally seemed to have learned in Iraq, but it doesn’t mean we won’t face setbacks. When that happens, we will adapt and overcome.

I think that the present and growing conventional wisdom that the surge has been a substantial success is correct — the security situation in Iraq is getting better, and the roots of that improvement are at the grassroots level. At the same time, it’s far too early to be pronouncing that Iraq has “turned a corner” quite yet. The political situation in Iraq is marked by a lack of progress. Al-Qaeda in Iraq still has some power. The situation with Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias is still a major concern. The situation in Basra is deteriorating in the wake of the UK pullback there. (And Basra provides an example of just what happens when a force pulls back without having established a basis for internal security.) To say that that progress in Iraq is inevitable isn’t true — the primary limitation on progress remains the fickle nature of the American political cycle.

Still, the surge has produced results. The grassroots rejection of al-Qaeda in al-Anbar Province is an incredibly heartening sign — and the fact that it has spread to Diyala and Salah-al-Din is an even more heartening sign. The actions of Iraq’s Sunnis only make sense in the context of a better political situation for them — al-Qaeda gained a foothold in Sunni territory because they promised to defend the Sunnis against the Shi’ite death squads. By rejecting al-Qaeda, the Sunnis have implicitly put their trust in the US and the Iraqi government to restrain the death squads. It’s a major shift for them, and it’s up to us to support the Iraqi government and security apparatus so that we don’t let them down.

There’s cause for optimism about the situation in Iraq — but that should be cautious optimism. For the first time, we’re seeing real grassroots support for a rejection of al-Qaeda and the formation of a federal system in Iraq under a government of national unity. Getting that done will not be easy, however. Al-Qaeda still has every interest in provoking the Shi’a and fomenting civil war in Iraq. However, this could be a turning point for the future of Iraq, and so long as we’re willing to support the Iraqi people in their struggle for peace and security, there is a chance that Iraq can lift itself out of the nightmare of war.

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