Gen. Petraeus 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Everybody in Washington has been waiting for General David H. Petraeus to give his report on tÆ’he Iraq war. Expectations became most inflated, as if he would deliver America from this seemingly insoluble problem in a messianic manner.
Now Petraeus has spoken, and he has done a pretty good job. There are some major paradoxes in his analysis and prescription, but given the nature of the issue that was certainly inevitable.
For Democrats, eager to have an American withdrawal from Iraq, Petraeus became something of a trap. To show they were patriotic and supported the troops, congressional Democrats praised Petraeus. Now, however, disliking some of the things he said, they look rather craven trying to find ways to criticize him.
Petraeus made three key points. First, he said that the surge is working. Sunni terrorists have been forced into retreat. Seeing how the tide is turning, some Sunni tribal leaders and even former insurgents have changed sides. In the struggle against radical Shi'ite militias, many top leaders have been captured.
"The military objectives of the surge are, in large measure, being met," he concludes.
Second, given the progress made, it is possible to return to pre-surge troop numbers in early 2008, and thereafter to discuss further troop withdrawals.
Third, the US is fighting a war against Iran inside Iraq. The Iranian Republican Guard Corps has trained, armed, funded, and even directed Shi'ite extremists who "assassinated and kidnapped Iraqi governmental leaders, killed and wounded our soldiers with advanced explosive devices provided by Iran, and indiscriminately rocketed civilians... It is increasingly apparent... that Iran... seeks to turn the Iraqi [radical Shi'ite forces] into a Hizbullah-like force to serve its interests and fight a proxy war against the Iraqi state and coalition forces in Iraq."
HAS PETRAEAUS almost single-handedly reversed the entire direction of the debate in the United States? Well, it's hard to believe, but he is certainly having a remarkably powerful effect. His balanced assessment simultaneously gives, respectively, a belief in the possibility of success, hope that the end is in sight, and a rationale for the war as being needed to combat a dangerous foe which must be stopped.
This is very impressive. There are points on which this analysis can be challenged. Yet in some ways, even if Petraeus is wrong, what could emerge is the best available policy under very difficult circumstances.
Clearly, by pouring in more US forces and going on the offensive, the American military has achieved more success. Yet, by the same token, relative triumph can be expected only so long as the high-level commitment continues.
Equally, the insurgents may find ways to counter US gains, will seek to sabotage any stability, and to outlast American endurance. Those who deserted the rebellion will do so only as long as it profits them.
Iraqi society remains unchanged and the battle for Sunni-Shi'ite battle for power remains unsettled. Moreover, the war is limited temporarily by the fact that large forces on the Shi'ite side have not entered battle only because they are saving their ammunition and troops for a future civil war.
There is, then, a naÃ¯ve and illusory aspect to Petraeus's conclusions. Still, most importantly, he has created a window of opportunity allowing the United States a rationale for withdrawal in the context of victory rather than defeat. Petraeus has thus straddled the deep divide between those who want to keep fighting indefinitely and those who want to withdraw immediately.
THE IRAQ WAR can be salvaged in policy terms if there is an American consensus that the United States has done its duty, kept its promises, defeated the insurgents enough to turn over the war to the Iraqi government, and can thus withdraw much of its force in a reasonable amount of time. With luck and good implementation the US might yet extricate itself from this mess in relatively good shape.
But then there's the third element in Petraeus's analysis. He has clearly and honestly told the American people and the world that the war has been so long, bloody and terrible because Iran and also Syria seek to make Iraq a radical, anti-Western, satellite state. They have done so ruthlessly at the cost of thousands of Iraqi - that is, Arab and Muslim - as well as American lives. They are the most dangerous enemy.
This is the total reverse of the Baker-Hamilton report, so hailed when it came out a few months ago, advocating rapprochement with Iran and Syria. It argued that Teheran and Damascus wanted the same things as America in Iraq. That report claimed the problem was due to American inability to concede enough.
Instead, Petraeus tells the tough truth: Iranian imperialism is at war with America and has no interest in any compromise solution.
What, however, should the US do about this? For to think the surge has fully and finally defeated the Syrian and Iranian surrogates in Iraq - much less these sponsors' willpower and financial resources - is clearly untrue.
How can the US compete with those who are so much closer, have a religious and/or ethnic advantage, are willing to fight for decades and spend unlimited funds, and are totally indifferent to human suffering? That is probably going to be the central problem for Western policy in the coming years.
The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.