Be Angry—but Patient
President Bush's "surge" isn't solving Iraq's political problem. But what's the Democrats' hurry to end it?Pity Gen. David Petraeus, the military commander in Iraq. Before Memorial Day, his September progress report from Baghdad was expected to be a turning point in the Iraq war. By Labor Day, it looked like most of the other turning points in this strange war: one where nothing turned.
Partisans worked through the summer to show that nothing as trivial as the field commander's assessment would influence their views. In July, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean announced, "We do not need to wait until September" to know that President Bush's "surge" strategy had failed. In August, Bush's allies shot back that the strategy was plainly succeeding.
People who knew better than to listen to partisans paid more attention to a raft of August progress reports: a partially declassified National Intelligence Estimate; a leaked draft report [PDF] from the Government Accountability Office; early accounts of a congressionally commissioned study of Iraqi security forces; and reports from members of Congress and think-tank experts who traveled to Iraq.
The assessments disagreed on some details, such as how much Iraq's security forces are improving, if at all. Taken together, however, they painted a coherent picture, which Petraeus's report seemed unlikely to change.
- Tactically, which is to say militarily, the troop surge is making headway. Partly thanks to Sunni tribes joining with U.S. forces against Al Qaeda, and partly because the Pentagon is devoting more resources to a better plan of attack, security has improved in Iraq's contested central regions. But:
- Iraq is still a dangerous and volatile place, far from stable. Sectarian militias, foreign terrorists, and domestic insurgents remain potent; violence remains unacceptably high. And:
- Strategically, which is to say politically, the surge is working much less well. As the National Intelligence Estimate summarized, "Broadly accepted political compromises required for sustained security, long-term political progress, and economic development are unlikely to emerge unless there is a fundamental shift in the factors driving Iraqi political and security developments."
- Absent a political settlement, Iraq's government and security forces are too incompetent, sectarian, and corrupt to stabilize the country without continued large-scale U.S. intervention.
- The troop surge is not sustainable much beyond next spring unless combat tours are extended, which would strain the Army to or near the breaking point. Pre-surge forces could be maintained a while longer but not indefinitely.
In sum: The surge has temporarily stabilized what had become a downward spiral and, by doing so, has bought some time. But not much time, and the Iraqis have done little with it.
Petraeus yesterday recommended pulling out about 30,000 troops by next summer and 1000-2000 Marines this month.