Hold On and Pray

by , April 13, 2008

Several things seem obvious from this week’s appearances by Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker before several House and Senate committee and President Bush’s subsequent speech on Thursday. First is that the U.S. "strategy" in Iraq now amounts to "hold on and pray," hoping that things won’t get catastrophically worse in Iraq and that President Bush can hand the mess off to the next president in January so that he (or she) will have to deal with the messy aftermath. Call it faith-based foreign policy. Or maybe that should be Feith-based.

Second is that Messrs. Petraeus, Crocker and Bush have begun to fixate on Iran as the major source of problems in Iraq to an extent that should be troubling to anyone who believes that the cure for a war that is going badly is anything other than jumping into a wider war with a larger country better-prepared and potentially more formidable military and more difficult terrain. At various times in the past, especially shortly after the "intelligence community" released its National Intelligence Estimate on Iran last December, I have downplayed the possibility of the Bush administration beginning outright military action against Iran before the Bushlet leaves office. I am reassessing my assessment. He might just be foolish and rash enough to do so.

Third, and perhaps most notably since hardly anybody else has deigned to notice it, was the clear and almost unforgivably arrogant and paternalistic tone nearly all administration (and most opposition leaders) took toward the Iraqis themselves. It was the tone of an imperial overlord rather than that of a friendly power genuinely seeking to help Iraqis help themselves (not that I would favor the U.S. doing that either). The Iraqis, as most Americans see it, are helpless children who need an indefinite period of guidance before they are able to assume responsibility for themselves. They are coming along – "sectarian violence is down dramatically," said our Dear Leader. "Civilian deaths and military deaths are also down. Many neighborhoods once controlled by al-Qaeda have been liberated. And cooperation from Iraqis is stronger – more tips from residents, more Iraqis joining their security forces," and so on.

But apparently tipping off Americans to this month’s version of the bad guys is about all we can expect from the Iraqis. This attitude that the all-wise Americans must continue to guide the benighted "little brown ones" might be a teeny bit more credible if there were even a hint of acknowledgment that the Americans have blundered terribly. But there’s not even a hint of admission that the U.S. government failed to plan beyond the expected joy of being greeted with flowers and accolades, that dismantling the Iraqi army, sending thousands of unemployed men with rifles into the streets, or wholesale de-Baathification that eliminated thousands of apolitical mid-level bureaucrats who had actually run departments, were monumental mistakes. One seldom learns from mistakes without admitting them.

THEY WERE LYING THEN

On that note, there’s a fascinating Commentary article by former and present Duke Professor Peter Feaver, who joined the National Security Council staff from 2005 to 2007. He writes: "By the middle of 2005, it was painfully obvious to everyone involved that the only decisive outcome that could be achieved during President Bush’s tenure was the triumph of our enemies, America’s withdrawal, and Iraq’s descent into a hellish chaos as yet undreamed of."

This was before the bombing of the Golden Dome Mosque in Samarra in February 2006 that unleashed the tsunami of violence that lasted through most of that year. And yet the boy president and his minions – not to mention the lapdogs at Faux News – were busily assuring us that all was going swimmingly, that the "as they stand up we stand down" strategy would bear fruit any day now and in fact already had. They were dissembling then, and if Prof. Feaver is to be believed, telling us things they knew to be untrue, not simply fooling themselves and believing their own propaganda. And we’re supposed to believe them now.

Prof. Feaver, now that he is out of government, can acknowledge mistakes made while he was there – dozens of them, Of course his narrative leads to his assertion that the administration learned and has things on the right path now. But those in government are still overpromising, painting a complex picture with plenty of minuses and some pluses in the rosiest hues imaginable, setting the American people up for further disillusionment. The notion of underpromising and overperforming seems utterly alien.

MORE FRANK THAN THE POLITICOS

All that said, I will grudgingly admit that Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker were reasonably impressive during most of the hearings. Their sober demeanor, stressing not only what they saw as the reality but the fragility and reversibility of improved conditions in Iraq, contrasted with the almost Pollyannaish optimism of some Republican senators who see from a Beltway perspective or parachute in to Iraq for a day or two.

Both representatives on the ground acknowledged that not all the improvements are attributable to the surge in troops and the change in strategy. Although Gen. Petraeus and his troops exploited the situation reasonably well, the "Anbar Awakening" of Sunni tribal leaders becoming disillusioned with al-Qaeda in Iraq and changing sides began before the surge. The decision of militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to order his Mahdi Army guerrilla band to observe a truce was taken independently of the surge (quite likely at the behest of Iran, though I can’t claim to know for sure). And as we have seen in the past several weeks, it was not surprisingly subject to change when militias ostensibly representing the shaky Iraqi government attacked.

Perhaps most important, while Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker noted a few steps in the direction of political reconciliation by Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraqi government, they said that progress has been slower than they had hoped – and further political progress is more important than military progress.

Gen. Petraeus’s recommendation – that after the surge drawdown is completed in June or July there should be a 45-day evaluation period before further troop reductions – is a tactical holding action rather than a strategy for victory, which the administration has still not defined.

One of the few senators to move beyond a strictly partisan response, Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana, put it rather well: "We cannot assume that sustaining some level of progress is enough to achieve success. … We need a strategy that anticipates a political end game and employs every plausible means to achieve it."

Such a strategy might involve announcing that U.S. troops will be withdrawn soon (with or without a timetable) to prod the Iraqi government, stressing bottom-up rather than top-down reconciliation, or talks with Iraq’s neighbors. But keeping the troops there indefinitely, after a "pause" that looks more like a stop sign, will not do it.

BUSH’S EMPTY BOMBAST

President Bush’s speech suggests even more strongly than the Petraeus-Crocker appearances that the U.S. strategy in Iraq until the end of this year is "hold on and pray." A more cynical view might even hold that the president is setting up the prospect of handing the mess off to the next president and being able to blame him or her if the mess he created explodes further.

Even the welcome news that Army combat tours will be reduced from 15 months to 12 months, no doubt welcome to the top military chiefs who have expressed concerns publicly and privately about the military being "hollowed out" by the endless combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, has a whiff of unseriousness about the mission to it. Granted, as outgoing Army chief of staff Gen. Richard Cody told the House armed Services Committee Tuesday, the Army is "out of balance" because of the war. But if the president had a coherent strategy for turning the corner in Iraq, he might well have been willing to tolerate that for a while.

The president spoke in broad generalities of "a free Iraq that can protect its people, support itself economically, and take charge of its own political affairs." Beyond holding on and hoping, however, there’s no sense of how to get there from here.

ENDLESS ENEMIES

One of the more striking aspects of our unfortunate occupation of Iraq is an ever-changing description of who "the enemy" is. At first it was the Saddam Hussein regime, and once that toppled it was covert regime loyalists and Saddamite dead-enders. After a long period of denying that an insurgency had developed, insurgents became the enemy. Then it became al-Qaeda in Iraq, although foreign and al-Qaeda forces never made up more than about 10 percent of those fighting the U.S. occupation. Now it is "special teams," presumably supported by Iran.

The unacknowledged fact here is that the longer the U.S. occupies Iraq the more enemies it makes. Imagine if the Chinese army were occupying California. Opposition to that occupation would come from new quarters virtually every week.

Perhaps the most encouraging development from this week’s hearings is the growing number of Republican congressmen who are beginning to question administration policy in public. "The people of the United States have paid an awful price," said Huntington Beach’s Dana Rohrabacher, noting that the Iraqi government had budget surpluses. "It’s time for the Iraqis to pay that price for their own protection. Republican Reps. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, John McHugh of New York, Randy Forbes of Virginia, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine, Steve Chabot of Ohio and even Dan Burton of Indiana all expressed impatience with the slow pace at which the Iraqi government is assuming responsibility.

Barack Obama had a few good moments too.

It could well be that these Republicans are simply distancing themselves somewhat from an unpopular president as they face reelection bids in November. Whatever the reasons, it is encouraging to see them express the skepticism most American feel at this point.

Given the predominant position of the president in foreign affairs, it is unlikely much will change while this president is on office. But the length, cost and indecisiveness of this war should make Americans more skeptical the next time a political leader suggests that beginning a war against a country halfway around the world is a good idea.

Or is that my own form of Pollyanaism?

Read more by Alan Bock