Monday, April 7, 2008

Iraq Hearings: The Iraqis Stepped Up to the Plate

Iraq Testimony

We can expect big political fireworks on Capitol Hill this week, as General David Petraeus prepared to testify on progress in Iraq.

The political stakes of the hearings have been raised by the recent fighting in Basra, which the Democrats and the antiwar backers will protray as proof the surge has failed (Senator Joe Biden
made that case over the weekend).

But the overall picture on the eve of the testimony is that Iraq has achieved a crucial turning point, that Iraq's indigenous forces have indeed "stood up," which is what antiwar hawks have been demanding for the past few years.

Washington Post has some background on the political stakes this week in the Iraq debate:

When Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker travel to Capitol Hill tomorrow, they might be the ones before the microphones, but the cameras will be trained on three of their inquisitors: Sens. John McCain, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.

The hearings before the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees promise to be as much about presidential politics as about the past six months of military and diplomatic progress in Iraq. All last summer, Washington anxiously awaited the September appearances of Petraeus, the commanding U.S. general in Iraq, and Crocker, the top U.S. diplomat in Baghdad, anticipating that their testimony could determine the political viability of continued war.

Their return engagement is eliciting no more than shrugs -- except on the political front. It has been months since Obama, McCain or Clinton appeared at a hearing, but all three contenders for the White House will take rare breaks from their campaigns to be on hand. Although the committee chairmen are loath to admit it, two relatively junior Democratic senators and one ranking Republican are likely to steal the show.

"This is sort of a dress rehearsal for who is best prepared to be commander in chief, who has the best understanding of what has happened, what was wrong in Iraq and how to fix it," noted Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), an Armed Services Committee member and McCain backer.

For the three candidates -- and for the Senate at large -- there is little expectation of surprises. Last September, lawmakers anxiously watched for cracks, either in Republican support of President Bush's war policies or in Democratic opposition.

"It's all completely predictable this time, what everyone is going to say," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a senior Foreign Relations Committee member and Obama backer.

If anything, the campaigns have dug the divisions deeper. Besides Bush, no other politician is as vested in the success of the troop increase and new counterinsurgency strategy as is McCain. He helped promote the troop increase, then used the fall and winter's drop in violence to resurrect his campaign. Graham said McCain has the opportunity tomorrow to make those successes his own -- and to challenge his would-be Democratic rivals to prove them illusory.
The Washington Post story suggests that recent figting in Iraq has been "inconclusive." But as Ralph Peters, a retired United States Army Lieutenant Colonel, and columnist at the New York Post, observes:

I watched the Basra dust-up from Panama, amazed at the willful obtuseness of "war correspondents" who still refuse to acknowledge basic military realities. They demanded a level of effectiveness from Iraqi troops that the British had been unable (and unwilling) to deliver over the last five years.

Unlike the Brits, who faked it, the Iraqis went into the city and fought. Was their performance perfect? Of course not. But this is where the punditry got really interesting.

Many of the critics had previously lavished praise on the counterinsurgency manual that Petraeus midwifed. One of the most-quoted maxims from that document was T.E. Lawrence's admonition that it's better for our local allies to do something imperfectly themselves than for us to do it perfectly for them.

Well, the Iraqis stepped up to the plate. A few units folded. Others fought ferociously. They did what we said we wanted - and the critics raised the bar again. (Unfair criteria for success now may pose a greater obstacle in Iraq and Afghanistan than do al Qaeda or the Taliban.)

And, by the way, it was Moqtada al Sadr, not the Iraqi government, who requested a cease-fire - after being urged by the Iranians to opt to let those militias live to fight another day.

Partisan critics refuse to accept that war is tough and results are never perfect. They want it all wrapped up neatly at the end of the two-hour movie so we can all walk out of the theater feeling good.
See also my earlier posts, "Postwar Germany: Messy Precedent for Iraq," and "The Basra Model."

Photo Credit: Middle East Online