To be sure, there is more reason than in almost all the previous years of the Iraq war for advocates to hope that things just might turn out reasonably well from the American perspective even given that even at this late date US objectives are remarkably ill-defined and subject to change as circumstances change. We’ve given up on democracy and even Iraqi-based stability in Iraq. We’ve given up on the "benchmarks" for political progress toward something resembling national reconciliation. In the near future the US government might be content with de facto partition so long as some pretense of a national government is maintained. But US casualties are noticeably down, at least during the latter half of last year, and that is taken as good-enough news.
During his State of the Union message, President Bush argued that his new tactics in Iraq sending 30,000 additional troops and having them operate actively in neighborhoods rather than return to secure bases each night "have achieved results few of us could have imagined just one year ago." There is more substance to this claim than in previous years, when the president maintained an optimistic posture even when it was clear things were not going well. But there are reasons to be more cautious than the president seems to be.
The most significant positive development over the last year was the "Anbar Awakening" that began when Sunni tribal leaders in that key province (many of whom had fought hard against Americans) became fed up with the brutality of al-Qaeda leaders who had established positions of power and tried to enforce their own narrow and intolerant vision of Muslim Sharia law on lifelong Muslims whose piety was not in doubt. As the president himself acknowledged, in his speech, however, that movement began in the fall of 2006, before the US announced the surge. US military leaders on the ground did capitalize on the Awakening movement skillfully, providing money, weapons and leadership. But the Awakening preceded the surge and was not dependent on the surge,
Furthermore, there is evidence that the pro-American sympathies of Awakening leaders may not be permanent. The US goal has been to integrate these anti-al-Qaeda militias into the national police and military forces, but the Shi’ite-dominated national government has been reluctant to welcome brigades of well-trained and well-armed Sunni fighters into the fold. And there are beginning to be counter-attacks. One Awakening leader told the British Independent newspaper this week that if progress on that front doesn’t come soon, the movement may turn anti-American again.
Another factor that contributed to the reduction in violence in Iraq was the decision by the virulently anti-American Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to order his vicious Mahdi Army militia to observe a cease-fire last August. But Mahdi Army leaders are now urging the cleric to end the cease-fire. If he does, violence in Iraq could return to pre-surge levels quickly, no matter how many US troops are in the country.
The point here is that no matter how many troops are in Iraq, the United States will have less actual control than one might think or hope.
The other reason for caution, of course, is that the Iraqi government has taken virtually none of the steps toward national reconciliation that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki and President Bush purportedly agreed a year ago were essential and high on the priority list. Even the revision of the de-Baathification law the president mentioned in the State of the Union address was less conciliatory than appeared on the surface; significantly, most Sunni members of the Iraqi parliament voted against it.
Meanwhile there has been no progress beyond some preliminary proposals that are mired in endless discussion on constitutional revision, an oil revenue-sharing law, local elections, or other measures deemed by the Bushlet and his minions and even rhetorically by Maliki and his presumed government essential to reconciliation. Iraqi leaders now say their own security forces won’t be ready to handle security on their own until 2018. It is difficult not to believe that so long as the administration resists any discussion of ending the US commitment in Iraq and keeps sending money, the Iraqis themselves feel little urgency about assuming full responsibility for their own country.
Meanwhile, most of the signs from Iraq and Washington suggest at least a semi-permanent US military presence in Iraq, and it is difficult to see how this will change much unless a president who really wants to withdraw from Iraq quickly of the remaining candidates Barack Obama talks that way and Ron Paul believes it deep down assumes office next January.
The one thing you can be certain of is that the Iraqi government, being a government, will have shortcomings for years and decades (all right, centuries) to come. It is unlikely that any government in the foreseeable future will have overcome the Shi’ite-Sunni divide, let alone the Kurdish differences. Thus the argument that they are not yet ready to assume full responsibility will always have a certain amount of salience. Until a less paternalistic US administration, one that is willing to make a judgment that it’s time for the US to pull back even though the result in Iraq will be something short of a Jeffersonian utopia, takes power, elements in the US will be able to argue that the time for withdrawal is not yet ripe.
President Bush’s speech also indicated that the administration and, I fear, most elements of the Democratic Party have still not come fully to grips with the nature of the Islamist terrorist threat that is likely to face this and other Western countries for some time to come, until it peters out in frustration. Although al-Qaeda before 9/11 derived certain advantages from operating in a country that tacitly accepted and approved its operations, the threat from jihadists is essentially that of a stateless terrorist operation or set of operations. Far from being state-supported, modern jihadism operates independently of nation-states. It more resembles a business franchise than a government-promoted practitioner of terrorism and insurgency.
As a decentralized stateless movement in an Internet-enabled world, al-Qaeda and those inspired or loosely controlled by it has certain disadvantages compared to a state-sponsored operation, meaning it is not as fearsome as some would maintain. At the same time, however, it has certain advantages. It might not be able to mobilize conventional armies, but it is difficult to detect and able to strike by surprise in unexpected ways. It does not have an identifiable home base (even though al-Qaeda means "the base") that can be destroyed through bombing or other conventional military means. Countering or neutralizing it may occasionally require more or less conventional military means or special forces operations, but it will also require more conventional law enforcement methods and unconventional counterinsurgency and espionage activity. Quiet ways of strengthening more moderate elements in Muslim countries and in Muslim communities around the world, perhaps better accomplished by non-governmental entities than by governments, might also be helpful.
Due consideration should also be given to pulling US military forces from occupation and imperial garrisoning duty in Muslim countries, thus eliminating one of al-Qaeda’s most potent recruitment tools. Al-Qaeda’s leaders might not hate us less if we did so (indeed, if they consider the effects on their desire to destroy a tottering empire they might hate us more). But they would undoubtedly find it more difficult to recruits people willing and able to engage in suicide attacks, especially on US soil.
In short, because al-Qaeda is a stateless, decentralized force, it will require more subtle and flexible means to counter it and the ideological impulses it represents. (One of the best treatments of this is in Charles Pena’s book, Winning the Un-War) But President Bush, like most American leaders, seems able to think only in conventional military and state-to-state conflict terms. Thus his continued focus on Iran and on military "victory" in Iraq.
To the man with a hammer everything looks like a nail. To the leader with an impressive military at his disposal and even in its current overstretched condition the US military is still more impressive, and definitely more expensive, than any other military machine in the world every problem looks like something to be handled by the military. Even more than the tendency to spin rosy scenarios, that’s the shortcoming in the way President Bush approaches the "war on terror" and in the way any likely new administration is likely to approach it.