Sunday, November 18, 2007

Will 2008 look like 1864? 

What do David Petraeus and William T. Sherman have in common?

Here is some food for thought:

While things in Iraq could turn around again, it now looks as if the change in US strategy and the injection of additional forces in 2007 is on the way to producing a military victory over al-Qaida and domestic Iraqi terrorists. Equally important has been the decision by a number of Sunni tribes to turn against the foreign terrorists. The result has been the restoration of security to Fallujah and a large part of the country and a sharp reduction in casualties. Next November it is likely to be clear that defeat was avoided and that troops are coming home.

Another result has been that more astute critics of the war have stopped talking about the hopelessness of the military effort and switched to complaining that the Iraqi government has failed to do what they believe is necessary to achieve "reconciliation." But the development of a non-dictatorial political system in Iraq is a slow, delicate, and uncertain process and voters may not think that American senators are the best judges of how well the Iraqis are doing....

In 1864 Americans were fed up with the Civil War, in which there were days on which more soldiers were killed than have died in four years of the Iraq war. "Mr. Lincoln is already beaten," wrote Horace Greeley, perhaps the leading journalist. And three months before the election Republican leaders told president Lincoln that he had no hope of reelection. As Peter Wallison of AEI recently recalled, the Democratic platform denounced "four years of failure" in the war effort and Gen. George B. McClellan, the Democratic candidate opposing Lincoln recommended making peace on Southern terms.

But on September 1 the news reached Washington that Atlanta had fallen to the Union army, and on election day it appeared as if the North was on the way to victory. Lincoln was decisively reelected. And, according to historian Allan Nevins, "The damage done to the Democratic Party by the platform could not be undone. Its … stigmatization of the heroic war effort as worthless gave the Northern millions an image of the Democratic Party they could never forget….and would cost the party votes for a generation."

For well over a year now most prominent Democrats have insisted that the Iraq war had been lost and that the US should get its troops home as quickly as possible. It was true that the US was losing the war in 2006. Two responses were possible. The Democrats response was, in effect, "the war is hopeless, we should give up." The administration response was, "we have to do something different so that we can win."

Most voters prefer the second response - especially when it is successful.

In November 2008 it is likely to be clear that if the US had followed the Democrats' advice the US would have suffered an unnecessary defeat. Those voters who believe that the US is facing dangerous threats from jihadis may well feel that it is not safe to bring to power the party that would have brought defeat in Iraq....

Will history repeat itself? Seven months ago Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared the Iraq war lost, citing as evidence rising violence:
The war in Iraq "is lost" and a US troop surge is failing to bring peace to the country, the leader of the Democratic majority in the US Congress, Harry Reid, said Thursday.

"I believe ... that this war is lost, and this surge is not accomplishing anything, as is shown by the extreme violence in Iraq this week," Reid told journalists.

In recent months the level of violence in Iraq and civilian and military casulaties resulting therefrom has plummeted. Some intellectually honest journalist needs to ask Harry Reid whether a decline in violence is as equally a measure of victory as the increase in violence was, according to him, a measure of defeat.

Meanwhile, the left has subtly altered its argument because the change in our military strategy -- the "surge" -- has indeed improved security in Iraq, always regarded as the essential precondition to meaningful political reform. The New York Times, which rolled out yet another defeatist editorial yesterday, acknowledged that much, even while clinging to the hope -- a noun I use advisedly -- that Iraq will fail to reconcile politically and thereby fail to validate President Bush:
There have been some advances since President Bush sought to salvage his misadventure by sending even more troops into Iraq. Violence has declined and Al Qaeda in Iraq is said to be weaker. But Mr. Bush’s main argument for his escalation — that it would create political space for Iraqis to work together and achieve national reconciliation — has proved wrong.

But is this true? Within days of Reid's poorly-timed rhetorical surrender, the Sunni tribes of Anbar province decided they were better off siding with the United States and the government of Iraq than supporting the jihadis' plan to splinter Iraq into civil war. Is not military alliance the first step toward political reconciliation? Indeed, no less an authority than the government of Iran declared today that the decline in violence in Iraq is because the government of that country has gotten its act together:
A strengthened Iraqi government and a reduction of "foreign interferences" have helped improve security in Iraq, Iran said on Sunday in an apparent reference to the role of U.S.-led forces in its neighbor.

Iran knows whereof it speaks on this subject, it being one of the leading "foreign influences" in Iraq. Of course, I generally do not believe Iran and even in this case assume that its public statement is intended to discredit the American contribution to the improved security in Iraq. However, those who would "negotiate" with Iran in the open (as opposed to secretly, which we are doing now), including most leading Democrats, presume that the public statements of the Iranians can be believed. So, Senator Reid, if you do not believe Iran when it says that the government of Iraq is succeeding because it has gotten stronger, why should you believe them when they deny their nuclear weapons program?

In any case, when George W. Bush announced the new strategy in January, he was quite clear that it would take a number of months for security to improve, particularly in Baghdad:
This new strategy will not yield an immediate end to suicide bombings, assassinations, or IED attacks. Our enemies in Iraq will make every effort to ensure that our television screens are filled with images of death and suffering. Yet over time, we can expect to see Iraqi troops chasing down murderers, fewer brazen acts of terror, and growing trust and cooperation from Baghdad's residents. When this happens, daily life will improve, Iraqis will gain confidence in their leaders, and the government will have the breathing space it needs to make progress in other critical areas. Most of Iraq's Sunni and Shia want to live together in peace -- and reducing the violence in Baghdad will help make reconciliation possible.

True, the central government of Iraq has not achieved the legislative benchmarks that Bush established, but it has achieved other things instead, including in particular a vastly more competent and credible military and police. Considering that the violence only really began to decline in September -- remember the left's outrage over General Petraeus' claims to that effect during his Congressional testimony -- even under the announced strategy we have only created the space necessary for true reconciliation in the last month or two. Is it happening? It is hard to say, but two developments are very encouraging. First, political reconciliation cannot happen without a competent Iraqi army and police and the military support of the Sunni tribes. That seems to have come together, at least for the time being, the tribes having decided after four years of violence that they are better off living under a majority government in Baghdad than as an outpost of the jihad. Second, the declining sectarian violence (resulting from the Sunni alliance which in turn is the product of the new American strategy) means that the Shiite militias have backed away from reprisal killings:
The drop in the kind of mass-casualty bombings inflicted by Al Qaeda on the Shiite community that ignited Shiite rage has also removed one of the chief motives of the Shiite militias engaged in retaliatory death-squad activity against Sunnis. The Mahdi Army militia loyal to cleric Moqtada Sadr, blamed for much of the killing, declared a six-month cease-fire in August, and U.S. officials and Iraqis say they mostly appear to be adhering to it.

In other words, Shiite and Sunni leaders are accepting the premise -- for the first time since the fall of Saddam -- that the government of Iraq, supported by the United States, ought to have a monopoly on the use of violence in that country. Is there any more important precondition to the building of a nation than that? Also, is this not at least some evidence that Iraqis are increasingly willing to trust their own government to muddle through? (More on progress toward political and confessional reconciliation here.)

At the moment the surge is unfolding as close to the schedule and the contours predicted by President Bush in January as can reasonably be expected in the fighting of a war. If the same is true in October 2008, will it be 1864 all over again? A great deal can happen between now and then, but if Iraq develops in a way that reveals the wisdom of Bush's intransigence over Democratic defeatism Harry Reid's declaration of defeat will absolutely come back to haunt the left. As it should.

UPDATE: Because we are nothing but fair and balanced, here is the best lefty argument I have seen for the proposition that our "bottom up" tactics in Iraq are actually undermining the prospects for a strong national government (because our strategy of empowering tribes is promoting "warlordism"). That is undoubtedly a risk, but it does not acknowledge the relative weakening of the militias and the increasing integration of Sunnis into the military and police. In essence, Iraqi nationalism is reasserting itself against the jihadis and the Iranians, Iraqis having apparently decided, for now, that the Americans are the only "foreign influence" who would actually leave if requested.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Nov 18, 11:10:00 AM:

Good job TH; this post is interesting indeed.

There is one further surprise for the upcoming election, echoing the election of 1864, that I wonder if you can't also predict: the 1864 election was expected to be a very close one, even after the trend had turned the Republicans way, but in the result it was a huge win for the GOP. So might go 2008.

What's missing so far from the current election mix, something important enough that might lead to such a result, is a compelling leader with a clear agenda. So much is being made of the public relations aspects of the various Republican contenders, like who is "more conservative" (whatever that means), or who has the least damaging stories in their background (cross-dressing, or past gifts to Planned Parenthood? Which is worse....). The MSM coverage has managed to almost trivialize the candidates so far.

Very little is actually being debated about the candidates proposed policies and desired direction for the country, even though the candidates themselves are trying hard to get noticed for actual differences in substantive policy matters.

When we get through the noise of having a suite of candidates on both sides of the aisle, and get to the general election, substance will start to get noticed. Then, the voters might also (as you suggest) tag the Democrats as all too willing to admit defeat when victory is all but won.

This election may not be close at all.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Nov 18, 01:49:00 PM:

Comparing organized tribal fighters to colonial militias is a much closer analogy than comparing them to 'warlords.' Warlords maintain their power through the distribution of loot, land, and women, whereas the tribal militias are motivated by family and regional loyalty.

Unless there is a mass change in motivation and behavior, calling these folks 'warlords' is dishonest semantics.  

By Blogger D.E. Cloutier, at Sun Nov 18, 01:56:00 PM:

Excellent post, TH.  

By Blogger antithaca, at Sun Nov 18, 02:31:00 PM:

I agree with dec, this is an excellent summary of where things stand for many of us.

For me, in addition, military conflict between the US and Iran was always more likely over events in Iraq than over its nuclear program (or at least sooner).

The improving situation in Iraq. Our talks with Iran with respect to Iraq...there cooperation (even if it's reluctant and they publicly deny it) is all positive with respect to the longer range nuclear issue and its prospects for peaceful resolution (if DinnerJacket can be moved aside somehow).

Additionally, military conflict with Iran is IMO off the table between now and the election. I think it would political suicide for the Republican party...reversing the 2008 as 1864 analogy you see.

Perhaps creating a Clinton as Johnson situation in 2010.  

By Blogger Georg Felis, at Sun Nov 18, 03:03:00 PM:

I would be willing to bet that the Democrat response to the ongoing success in Iraq will be to take credit. For you see, as long as the Republican Administration claimed to remain in Iraq for years and years, the dissident factions had no incentive to unite, and every incentive to drive the Crusaders from their Holy Lands. But once the brave and forthright Democrats began pushing for the removal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, these factions saw the light and united, so that the country of Iraq could be free as the US troops departed. For you see, these US Soldiers are an impediment to peace, standing around in their foreign country and shooting at poor innocent people, once they are out of the way, the country becomes a much better place. And children can once again fly kites in peace.

See. It is not betrayal, and cut and run politics that form the Democrat agenda. They only want peace. And tax increases.

*end sarcasm tag*  

By Blogger SR, at Sun Nov 18, 05:49:00 PM:

Isn't interesting how all the news outlets almost seem to be goading Bush into a confrontation with Iran.
Thomas P.M. Barnett seems to be convinced Bush is going to attack Iran. I think global warming is much more likely than an impending attack on Iran.  

By Blogger antithaca, at Sun Nov 18, 07:00:00 PM:

Well, a lot of people write and speak as-though they are convinced HalliBushHitlerBurton (h/t Steyn) is going to attack Iran...but I think that's purely for domestic political gain (read: fear mongering in an election season)

After the eh...bumps in the road in Iraq...Iran is going to need to build a bomb before the US can act (whether that's with a harsh political-military policy or a purely military one...who can say).  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Nov 18, 07:17:00 PM:

undermining the prospects for a strong national government

Who cares how "Strong" the national government is? The Swiss have a weak national government which seems to work fine, and Biden is pitching a plan to bust the joint up which would produce a toothless national government.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Nov 18, 09:48:00 PM:

The Swiss don't live in the Middle East with indefensible borders and billions upon billions of dollars under the ground.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Nov 18, 11:32:00 PM:

georgfelis has it absolutely right, and I'd go even further.

We will know when we have won the war when the Democrats take full credit for it.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Nov 19, 02:42:00 PM:

The Swiss don't live in the Middle East with indefensible borders and billions upon billions of dollars under the ground.

Iraq has the protection of the USA (at least for a while). Who would risk running afoul of that to invade them now? Please be specific.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Nov 19, 08:03:00 PM:

So Iraq has no need of a strong government because they're covered by our troops? I suppose that makes sense, (even though both Turkey and Iran have crossed the borders already) and is even to our benefit if we intend to stick around and rule them as a colony. Better the natives are divided than united, right?

But I think we'd like to come home eventually, and by then they will need to be able to stand completely on their own feet. I have absolutely no confidence that a weak central government will be able to either administer Iraq (especially considering the Kurds' collective desire for independence, which would almost certainly spawn a Turkish invasion) or defend it against aggressors.  

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