Saturday, April 19, 2008

Don't Throw Away Lessons of the Surge

Jonathan Rauch, over at the National Journal, argues that recent military successes in Iraq are real and should't be thrown away. The greater problem for military success is found in political difficulties in Washington:

America has seen this drama before. In Act 1 of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon misunderstands the conflict and relies on an attrition strategy and search-and-destroy tactics that are useless or worse against an insurgency. In Act 2, after years of losing, a new general switches to counterinsurgency methods that work much better, pushing the enemy back on its heels.

Act 3, in which the United States loses the war anyway, is controversial. Some observers blame an American failure of will for relinquishing hard-won gains. Other observers argue, however, that the fundamental and fatal failure was in Saigon, not Washington. American strategy depended on converting U.S.-provided military gains into a South Vietnamese government that could defend itself and was worth defending, but Saigon was a basket case. Successful tactics were succeeding to no purpose, because the strategy had failed.

Does the administration have a viable strategy in Iraq? Reasonable people debate the point. Yes, says Peter Feaver, a Duke University political scientist and former Bush administration official who helped formulate the surge. “At last,” he writes in Commentary magazine, “the United States has a sustainable strategy for Iraq with a reasonable chance of success.”

In this view, keeping U.S. forces in Iraq while helping the Iraqis build a state and nudging them toward accommodation is a strategy, not a tactic. Bush, Petraeus, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, all take this view. McCain, in fact, takes it to the point of Herbert Hooverism, promising, “Success is within reach.”

Skeptics counter that what Bush has is not a strategy but merely a tactic. “I believe the president has no strategy for success in Iraq,” Biden said in a speech this month. “His plan is to muddle through—and hand the problem off to his successor.” Tellingly, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking Republican and one of Washington’s leading foreign-policy thinkers, agrees. “Simply appealing for more time to make progress is insufficient,” he said in hearings last week. “We need a strategy that anticipates a political endgame and employs every plausible means to achieve it.” Asked whether Lugar thinks Petraeus and Bush have presented such a strategy, a spokesman replied, “The simple answer is no.”

What I think I’ve learned from the surge is that Bush and McCain are right. The surge’s gains are real and should not be thrown away. But Democrats, Lugar, and other skeptics are also right. Bush and McCain have not figured out a way to build on the surge.

This is not for want of strategic ideas. A succession of expert witnesses offered an assortment of suggestions in Senate hearings earlier this month. Here are the leading contenders.

• Instead of propping up the central government in Baghdad, federalize Iraq, decentralizing security and many other state functions.

• Instead of pleading with Iraqis to share power, lock the United Nations, the neighbors, and the Iraqis in a room and broker a deal backed by international muscle and regional support.

• Instead of seeking a national political accommodation, stitch together a patchwork of local cease-fires and enforce them with U.S. and other peacekeeping forces.

• Instead of unconditional engagement (the Bush-McCain approach) or unconditional disengagement (the Democrats’ preferred approach), go with conditional engagement, making continued U.S. support contingent on progress in Baghdad.

The time to be vigorously debating these and other strategic options would be before the surge’s gains dissipate; before America’s deployment and influence in Iraq wane; and before developments there force our hand. Now, in other words.

Oddly, however, you don’t hear leading members of either party debating them. Bush and McCain don’t want to concede that the current strategy may be inadequate, so they harp on the surge’s tactical success. The Democrats don’t want to offer strategic proposals that concede that America may need to stick around a while in Iraq, so they harp on Bush’s strategic failures.

With the economy in trouble and Bush blocking any change of course in Iraq until next year, maybe it is unrealistic to expect politics to address the real question. That question is not “Is the surge working?” It is “What else needs to be done to make the surge work?”

The 2008 election cycle is ideally timed to take up this question—if only someone would. Maybe someone will. So far, however, the most dispiriting lesson of the surge is that on the crucial political front, which is where the war’s outcome will ultimately be determined, Washington is not coping much better than Baghdad.
See also Peter Feaver's new essay on Iraq at Commentary, "Anatomy of the Surge."