Declaring Victory in Iraq

By arriving during relative lulls in violence, O'Hanlon and Pollack may have seen a picture that the administration is not confident can last. They focus on anecdotes and personal observations, not statistics or systemic trends.
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I almost jumped out of my subway seat yesterday morning while reading Mike O'Hanlon and Ken Pollack's NY Times op-ed entitled: "A War We Just Might Win." The pair just returned from a trip to Iraq and declare:

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.

The two report that troop morale is high, that American servicemembers have confidence in General David Petraeus and in the surge strategy. They say that efforts at reconstruction and stabilization are appropriately tailored to the needs of local communities, that local politicos are cultivating the support of American commanders, that commercial districts of Baghdad are coming to life, that Iraqi troops are showing their mettle, that militia-ridden areas are being not just cleared but also held, that the US-led provincial reconstruction teams are working and that Iraqis are rebelling against the likes of al Qaeda and Sadr. The only major caveats noted are in relation to the police and the stalled process of political reconciliation. The piece ends by calling for the extra troops to stay in place at least through 2008.

This is the best news to be reported out of Iraq in months if not years, and has special credibility coming from two longstanding critics of the war. When John McCain made some similar observations several months back, he was ridiculed in the media. But is it really cause to rethink the grim outlook on Iraq shared throughout so much of official Washington and Middle America?

The conservative bloggers and pundits are, not surprisingly, having a field day. For better or worse, its hard not to see how the piece doesn't aid the cause of prolonging the war, strengthening the case of those who argue that the consequences of US withdrawal will be devastating, and that Washington may just pull this off after all. That may seem a lot of weight to accord a single op-ed, but the debate is teetering for a long time and this might just push it over the edge.

Here's my reaction to the piece:

If there were really this much good news, its hard to understand why the Bush administration has not trumpeted it. A few weeks ago, faced with a possible acceleration of the September date planned for hearings on the success or failure of the surge, the administration came up with a lukewarm-at-best portrayal of conditions on the ground. Bush said only that it was soon to judge, not that the emerging evaluation was positive.

Is the administration quietly hoping that the Congress will push for a pull-out, allowing the president to wash his hands of the policy and argue after-the-fact that staying the course would somehow have been better? The more plausible expectation may be that O'Hanlon and Pollack's observations are of a preliminary, potentially fleeting phenomena - calm streets, optimistic people, upbeat troops. By arriving during relative lulls in violence, they may have seen a picture that the administration is not confident can last. Of note, their piece focuses on anecdotes and personal observations, not statistics or an analysis of systemic trends.

All this points to the profound difficulty of making military choices from afar and from the outside. Making sensible judgments on the basis of politically-spun government and military accounts, spotty media coverage done under treacherous conditions, and precious little by way of first-hand accounts is tough.

O'Hanlon and Pollack deserve to be taken seriously, though not to be taken at their word. Pollack was wrong on Iraq's WMD, which goes to show that even the smartest guys can make big mistakes. O'Hanlon was more skeptical about Saddam's weapons, but also came out in favor of war.

But on their latest trip to Iraq, the two found something they did not expect and, if they're right on Iraq now, that could and should have major policy implications. Policymakers have to be flexible enough to react to changes on the ground, even if they up-end entrenched political positions. The US has invested enormously in Iraq, and the likelihood of chaos and increased bloodshed after America's departure has seemed almost certain. While the American public badly wants out, its only because withdrawal seems the best of a series of grim options.

Rigorous efforts should be made to test the evidence behind O'Hanlon and Pollack's observations: how well is the Iraqi army really doing? to what degree have sectarian attacks been brought under control? how clear are the signs of an Iraqi population turning against the terrorist militias?

The thinking also needs to go beyond O'Hanlon and Pollack's bland observation that the political process is getting nowhere. Analyzing what should happen assuming the military situation were to come under relative control while the Iraqi government remained weak and wholly dependent on the US is tough. Only if troop and violence levels dropped precipitously could there conceivably be the political will to sustain an American presence once it became clear that the Iraqi government would be unable to stand up for itself.

About the only thing that O'Hanlon and Pollack guarantee is that the Iraq debate will wear on for months if not years to come.

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