Monday, January 14, 2008

Democrats making a mistake on Iraq

As a Democrat, what the party's candidates are now saying about Iraq worries me (see William Kristol's piece below). Regardless of how they voted in the past, it's a mistake to deny that the surge in Iraq has been successful. Yes, there's still a lot of work to be done in Iraq, and political reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites is happening at a glacial pace. But simply denying that there's been any progress in Iraq is playing into the Republicans' hands on the issue. Clinton and Obama need to begin to modify their position on Iraq to bring it into some relationship with reality. Both candidates are trying to satisfy the liberal, anti-war wing of the Democratic Party, which is always dominant in the primaries, just as the right wing of the Republican Party is dominant in their primaries. One can only hope that, after super Tuesday, we'll have a presumptive nominee, and he/she can begin modifying his/her position on Iraq. Otherwise, the Republicans will be able to accuse the Democrats of being defeatist and undermining the morale of our troops even as they are winning the war.

A sensible Democratic position would look something like this: "The invasion of Iraq was a mistake. The Bush Administration completely misunderstood the internal dynamics of Iraqi society, especially the religious and ethnic conflicts that have characterized life in Iraq for many years. Even worse, the Bush Administration was completely unprepared for what would happen after the Shock and Awe phase of the war and the US occupation began. They apparently naively assumed that a grateful Iraqi people would shower US troops with flowers and quickly establish a civil society in the wake of the Saddam Hussein regime. Hence, they went into Iraq with an inadequate number of troops and tried to win the war on the cheap. John McCain was right about that. Unfortunately, we can't now withdraw our troops from Iraq immediately without doing damage to our national security interests."

Okay, the Democrats are unlikely to admit that McCain was right about the inadequate troop level and the surge, especially if he ends up as the Republican nominee. But they need to modify their simplistic approach to Iraq after the early primaries give us a presumptive nominee. Otherwise, the Republicans will once again be able to use the national security issue effectively against the Democrats in November, which could offset our big advantage on economic issues.

The Democrats’ Fairy Tale
NY Times, Jan. 14, 2008
By William Kristol

“Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.” Thus spoke Bill Clinton last Monday night, exasperated by Barack Obama’s claim that he — unlike Hillary Clinton — had been consistently right (or wrong, depending on your point of view) on the Iraq war.

Now in fact, Obama has been pretty consistent in his opposition to the war. But Bill Clinton is right in this respect: Obama’s view of the current situation in Iraq is out of touch with reality. In this, however, Obama is at one with Hillary Clinton and the entire leadership of the Democratic Party.

When President Bush announced the surge of troops in support of a new counterinsurgency strategy a year ago, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Democratic Congressional leaders predicted failure. Obama, for example, told Larry King that he didn’t believe additional U.S. troops would “make a significant dent in the sectarian violence that’s taking place there.” Then in April, the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, asserted that “this war is lost, and this surge is not accomplishing anything.” In September, Clinton told Gen. David Petraeus that his claims of progress in Iraq required a “willing suspension of disbelief.”

The Democrats were wrong in their assessments of the surge. Attacks per week on American troops are now down about 60 percent from June. Civilian deaths are down approximately 75 percent from a year ago. December 2007 saw the second-lowest number of U.S. troops killed in action since March 2003. And according to Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of day-to-day military operations in Iraq, last month’s overall number of deaths, which includes Iraqi security forces and civilian casualties as well as U.S. and coalition losses, may well have been the lowest since the war began.

Do Obama and Clinton and Reid now acknowledge that they were wrong? Are they willing to say the surge worked?

No. It’s apparently impermissible for leading Democrats to acknowledge — let alone celebrate — progress in Iraq. When asked recently whether she stood behind her “willing suspension of disbelief” insult to General Petraeus, Clinton said, “That’s right.”

When Obama was asked in the most recent Democratic presidential debate, “Would you have seen this kind of greater security in Iraq if we had followed your recommendations to pull the troops out last year?” he didn’t directly address the question. But he volunteered that “much of that violence has been reduced because there was an agreement with tribes in Anbar Province, Sunni tribes, who started to see, after the Democrats were elected in 2006, you know what? — the Americans may be leaving soon. And we are going to be left very vulnerable to the Shias. We should start negotiating now.”

But Sunni tribes in Anbar announced in September 2006 that they would join to fight Al Qaeda. That was two months before the Democrats won control of Congress. The Sunni tribes turned not primarily because of fear of the Shiites, but because of their horror at Al Qaeda’s atrocities in Anbar. And the improvements in Anbar could never have been sustained without aggressive American military efforts — efforts that were more effective in 2007 than they had been in 2006, due in part to the addition of the surge forces.

Last year’s success, in Anbar and elsewhere, was made possible by confidence among Iraqis that U.S. troops would stay and help protect them, that the U.S. would not abandon them to their enemies. Because the U.S. sent more troops instead of withdrawing — because, in other words, President Bush won his battles in 2007 with the Democratic Congress — we have been able to turn around the situation in Iraq.

And now Iraq’s Parliament has passed a de-Baathification law — one of the so-called benchmarks Congress established for political reconciliation. For much of 2007, Democrats were able to deprecate the military progress and political reconciliation taking place on the ground by harping on the failure of the Iraqi government to pass the benchmark legislation. They are being deprived of even that talking point.

Yesterday, on “Meet the Press,” Hillary Clinton claimed that the Iraqis are changing their ways in part because of the Democratic candidates’ “commitment to begin withdrawing our troops in January of 2009.” So the Democratic Party, having proclaimed that the war is lost and having sought to withdraw U.S. troops, deserves credit for any progress that may have been achieved in Iraq.

That is truly a fairy tale. And it is driven by a refusal to admit real success because that success has been achieved under the leadership of ... George W. Bush. The horror!

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