In the Arena

Today in Iraq: Two Views

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The Washington Post has a lengthy oped today from Frederick Kagan, General Jack Kean and Michael O’Hanlon about the “success” of the surge. And while it’s more nuanced than the simplistic–We’re Succeeding!–line that John McCain is peddling on the campaign trail, it is still blindly and deceptively optimistic, given the staggering complexities of the situation on the ground.
There is, for example, this common oversimplification:

Considering the big steps taken by Iraqi security forces over the past year, as well as the tremendous damage our forces and Iraqi forces, together with the Iraqi people, have done to al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni Baathist insurgency, Iranian-backed special groups and the fighting elements of the Jaish al-Mahdi, this belief is probably justified. But we cannot be sure. [Emphasis mine.]

Big steps? A few weeks ago, during Operation Phantom Phoenix in Diyala, we learned that the U.S. military didn’t place enough trust in the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to tell them about the joint operation in advance! There is also the witting refusal to acknowledge that much of the ISF, especially in the south, is under control of the Hakim family militia, the Badr Corps, which has extremely close ties to Iran. Some of my intelligence sources are increasingly alarmed by the U.S. tendency to oversimplify the Shi’ite intramural struggle–Hakim good, Sadr bad. Not that Sadr is even remotely “good,’ but at least his movement has a history of nationalistic opposition to the Iranians (even though his Mahdi Army is now receiving support from Iran, as is Badr.)

Marc Lynch has, as usual, a far more nuanced view of the intricacies of Iraqi politics on the Sunni side. Lynch’s post is way-complicated and probably for Iraq obsessives only, but it is striking to me how absolutely fair his assessment is–raising the possibility that the U.S.-supported Awakening Councils could represent a more democratic, creative Sunni politics, but pessimistic that the old Sunni establishment will compromise with this fresh new force. This is the sort of assessment that our so-called leaders–especially academics like Kagan O’Hanlon–should be giving us, but never do.

A few days ago, McCain railed at me, “You always see the glass half-empty, I always see it half-full.” Maybe so, but I think McCain and many of the other surge supporters aren’t looking at the actual glass at all–and if they are, it’s (sorry) through rose-colored glasses. are looking at a glass and I’m looking at a septic tank. As I’ve said before, I hope they’re right–and I remain tremendously impressed with the creativity and flexibility that David Petraeus has brought to this mission–but Iraq remains very much a mess and those who portray it otherwise simply aren’t looking very carefully.

Again, the strategic choice now is stark: Do we continue to spend $9,000,000,000 per month refereeing an incomprehensibly complex civil war, now that Al Qaeda in Iraq and the other Sunni extremists have been largely rejected by that population–or do we transfer some of our resources to Afghanistan, allow our Army to recover from this misadventure…and spend the rest of those resources on a far more important long-term goal: reducing our dependence on foreign oil so that we are not, as Hillary Clinton says, “borrowing money from the Chinese to pay the Saudis?”

This combination of defense and economy policy–the energy independence program will create thousands of jobs and slake the recession–should be at the heart of the general election this year.