Waiting for Gen. Petraeus

So all of Washington (and maybe even a few of those out in the rest of the country) is waiting for Gen. David Petraeus to deliver his report on the "surge" and how things are going in Iraq. It is a curious phenomenon whose curiosity has been too little noticed.

We supposedly have a long tradition in this country of civilian control of the military, symbolized by a civilian, the president, being designated as commander-in-chief of the military. But the civilians who instigated and have run this war have lost almost all the credibility they once might have possessed, and are turning to a military figure to pull their credibility chestnuts out of the fire. The most interesting – and potentially disturbing – factor is that we will be relying on a military figure to advise us not just on military tactics in the field, on the implementation of a grand strategy devised by civilians, but on the grand strategy itself.

I know, I know. Despite his repeated protestations that he is relying on his military commanders in the field to give him unvarnished advice that he will not only follow to the letter but honor by providing them all the resources they say they need, President Bush has routinely ignored military advice and fired commanders when they offered advice he didn’t want to hear. Gen. Petraeus is now the main commander in Iraq, in fact, because the president became disillusioned with the previous commander and shuffled somebody in to carry out a strategy most of the military in the field had little confidence in.


However, perhaps, things are a little different now. As Bruce Ackerman put it recently in the Financial Times, "he [the president] has made himself a hostage. He needs the general more than the general needs him." It is quite possible that even the bubbled president recognizes that nobody believes him anymore. Even he is talking about a token drawdown of troops in Iraq. If Gen. Petraeus doesn’t restore a little credibility to his lame-duck presidency, to whom can he turn?

So what we may be seeing, as the civilians, perhaps hoping to escape a measure of responsibility for the outcome of this misbegotten war, is a gradual erosion of civilian control over the military and the emplacement of the military even more directly than it already is, at the center of policy-making. For the short run, considering the competence of the civilians in question, that might not be viewed as altogether bad. In the long run, however, it may be yet another reason to be sorry the neocons and Bush and Cheney got us into this mess.

Most indications are that when Gen. Petraeus delivers his report on Monday it will be balanced and nuanced, acknowledging problems and particularly the almost complete lack of political progress on the Iraqi side, but highlighting progress on the U.S. military and security side. Thus the old saying, “How you see it depends on where you stand” is likely to apply, with both withdrawal advocates and “stay the course” advocates able to cherry-pick it to find something to support their preference.

Here are a few things to consider:

The “surge” will have to end next April for logistical reasons. Tours of duty have already been extended from 12 months to 15 months and going to 18 months is off the table. Top military officials are expressing concern about extended deployments weakening the military, hurting recruitment, encouraging people to leave rather than re-up, and degrading the ability to respond to problems elsewhere. If the “job” isn’t “done” by April continuing the surge is not an option.

So the question is what comes after the surge. Will it be a semi-permanent but reduced deployment calculated so that U.S. forces take hardly any casualties, as in Bosnia, where U.S. troops are still deployed 10 years later? Given the obvious weaknesses of the semi-fictional Iraqi government in Baghdad, will the U.S. more directly assume responsibility for running every aspect of Iraq?


It is likely that the progress in Anbar province, which seems fairly real, insofar as one can rely on incomplete news reporting and think-tank assessments, is due less to the surge than to local tribal leaders (Sunnis) getting upset enough with the foreign-dominated al-Qaida in Iraq to start resisting them actively – combined with U.S. willingness to provide weapons and money to forces that a year ago were resisting U.S. occupation.

Once the surge ends, if we start turning more responsibility over to the Iraqis, will the Shi’ite-dominated central government provide these tribal forces weapons and money and start integrating them into a national rather than sectarian security force? The central government will have legitimate concerns about arming Sunni forces with U.S. training who would be potential adversaries in a civil war that could break out in earnest when the U.S. redeploys or draws down troops. What is their incentive for doing so? Is this the way to stability?

Without Iraqi political reconciliation, U.S. military success means little in the long run, and every report to date – from the National Intelligence Estimate to the GAO report to the report from the commission headed by former Marine commandant Gen. James Jones reports little if any progress on that front. Perhaps the outcome will be a de facto division of the country into three ethnic/sectarian regions – Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the west, Shi’ite in the south and increasingly dominating Baghdad, given that the Shi’ites have pretty much driven all the Sunnis out of western Baghdad, which used to be Sunni-dominated. Are there any plans for guiding a de facto loose confederation in such a way as to minimize bloodshed and bitterness along the way?

In short, is there anything resembling a Plan B? If it is unlikely that a reasonably stable central Iraqi government can take over responsibility for security by April, what are the alternatives? Could U.S. forces help to relocate Sunnis and Shi’ites in areas dominated by their fellow religionists to minimize the likelihood of sectarian bloodletting as the U.S. turns responsibility over to the Iraqis? Might U.S. troops be redeployed to the Kurdish north or to the Arab emirates on the Gulf where they would be available to intervene on short notice should a bloodbath begin? Or would this be a waste of American blood?


I don’t think a bloodbath is necessarily inevitable if the U.S. begins to withdraw. Those who are predicting it as an argument for maintaining the U.S. presence have been wrong about almost every prediction they have made over the last five years. Assuming it’s likely, however, will keeping U.S. troops actively engaged prevent it if they stay another six months? Another year? Another five years? How many American lives are we willing to lose to reduce the chance of an Iraqi bloodbath? If it can’t be prevented, what’s the point of staying longer?

During the "debate" among GOP presidential hopefuls on Wednesday, former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee admonished Rep. Ron Paul to the effect that when we make a mistake, we make it as one nation, and we have to see it through. Rep. Paul rightly responded that it is hardly the wisest course to persist in a mistake once we have acknowledged that it was a mistake.

I recognize that there are still Americans who not only don’t consider the war of aggression a mistake, but view it still as the only course of action available and a wise one at that, but their number is dwindling. And as much as they may speak of the importance of sticking it out until we attain victory, I haven’t heard one of them explain in intelligible terms – the kind that might guide a coherent grand strategy – just what would constitute victory. Even the vaguely defined goalposts keep shifting – from tossing out Saddam to finding those pesky WMD to establishing a viable democracy to (at the beginning of this year) having the central Iraqi government meet certain benchmarks to (perhaps now) hoping that a bottom-up process with Anbar as a model will eventually lead to a viable decentralized Iraqi state. But none of those goals are the kind that can inform the military just what it has to do to achieve them.

Sooner or later – preferably sooner – we Americans are going to have to acknowledge that invading Iraq was a strategic mistake and begin leaving, acknowledging that we can’t establish heaven on earth in a country we never took the trouble to try to understand halfway around the world. It might be justifiable to take modest steps to try to limit the damage as we leave, but leaving is the most prudent course. Whether we will learn enough to hew to a more modest foreign policy of war avoidance and independence in the future – leading by example rather than by bombing – will be the next question.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).