Monday, January 14, 2008

Progress (And Caution) In Iraq

Bill Kristol, in his role as the newest op-ed columnist for the New York Times, has a piece in today's Times blasting the Democrats for their failure to admit progress in Iraq or to retract their past predictions of failure for the surge. A sample:

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.”

Kristol's confidence comes from two places: First, the Sunni "Awakening" that has gone a long way to reducing civilian and military casualties and marginalizing al Qaeda, and second, the de-Baathification law finally passed by the Iraqi Parliament. As I, and every other analyst, has been saying, the surge was only one part of the strategy in Iraq; the surge would only matter if it was accompanied by political change. The de-Baathification law was a long- and much-desired step in the right direction, needed to provide Sunnis with a sense that they can be part of the new government and that their futures would be best secured by participation rather than joining the insurgency. The de-Baathification policy implemented following the fall of Saddam Hussein threw countless Sunnis out of work and made them doubt their futures in the new democratic Iraq. According to Kristol:

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.
And yet, the de-Baathification policy is only one step on the road to political reconciliation. And while it is a particularly important step, there are others that will need to be taken as well if the surge is to bear fruit. The exceedingly important oil revenue law, which is necessary to provide Sunnis with a stake in the future by ensuring them a share of oil revenues, is languishing in the parliament and doesn't look to be passed any time soon. Nor does a handful of constitutional amendments desired by Sunni political parties or laws setting rules for local elections. Furthermore, even the small step of the de-Baathification law has taken a very long time to pass. The Iraq Study Group set late 2006/early 2007 as the time frame for passing the de-Baathification law, as well as the oil revenue law, March 2007 for a referendum on the constitutional amendments, and provincial elections by June 2007. So far, the de-Baathification law is the only benchmark to be acheived, and nearly a year late at that.

Delays and fits and starts are to be expected in a project as comprehensive as the democratization of Iraq. But while the time to proclaim defeat may have passed, it is still too early to proclaim victory in Iraq. The surge is working, and the political reconciliation is moving in the right direction but the job is not yet done.

The real danger now is in complacency. Just because casualties are down does not mean that the surge should be undone. US troop levels must remain at a high level long enough for the political situation to catch up to the improved security. President Bush must continue to press the Iraqi government to continue on the path of political reconciliation. Only that, and not US military might, can ensure a stable, democratic Iraq. Pessimism is no longer warranted, but neither are over-optimistic assessments.

UPDATE: Kristol's own Weekly Standard reinforces the point I want to make about the need for caution. In this post on the Worldwide Standard blog, Brian Faughnan excoriates the editors of the New York Times for editorializing about the lack of progress towards political reconciliation on the same day as the paper reports the passage of the de-Baathification law. While the Times editorial could and should have mentioned the new law, its passage does not by itself represent sufficient progress.

UPDATE 2: The New York Times is reporting that the effect of the new de-Baathification law may not be as hoped:

...the legislation is at once confusing and controversial, a document riddled with loopholes and caveats to the point that some Sunni and Shiite officials say it could actually exclude more former Baathists than it lets back in, particularly in the crucial security ministries.


The most extreme interpretations of the measure’s effects actually came from Shiite officials. Some of them hailed it because it would ban members of even the lowest party levels from the most important ministries: justice, interior, defense, finance and foreign.

That would seem to preclude the government from keeping its promise to offer military and police jobs to the thousands of Sunni Arabs who have joined the Awakening groups.


Under that interpretation, the law would be directly at odds with the American campaign to draft Sunni Arabs into so-called Awakening militias with the aim of integrating them into the police and military forces.


But interpretations of the measure’s actual effects varied widely among Iraqi officials. In general, Shiite politicians hailed it as an olive branch to Sunni Arabs. But some Sunnis say it is at best an incremental improvement over the old system, and at worst even harsher.

“This law includes some good articles, and it’s better than the last de-Baathification law because it gives pensions to third-level Baathists,” said Khalaf Aulian, a Sunni politician who opposed the legislation. “But I don’t like the law as a whole, because it will remain as a sword on the neck of the people.


One particular improvement, he said, was that de-Baathification cases would now be subject to judicial review, whereas the old de-Baathification committee’s decisions were final. And the Council of Ministers would have the right to make exceptions to the law in order to serve the public interest. “Before, we dealt with Baath Party members as a group,” he said. “Now, being a Baath Party member is not a crime by itself. If someone has committed a crime in the old regime, that accusation should be made in court. And all of the members can get a pension.”

On other fronts, "Iraqi legislators said Sunday that they were making progress on two more key benchmarks urged by the Bush administration: the approval of an oil revenue sharing law and the settlement of competing claims to the contested northern city of Kirkuk."

Again, as I said originally, it's far too early to call the surge a success.


Anonymous said...

So remind me, please, how many of the benchmarks set by the U. S. has Iraq now met?

Is Iraq's batting average on benchmarks higher than Kristol's batting average on Iraq?

jweltsch said...


Your optimism amazes me. Yes the deBa'athification law was passed, but from what I read, it has so many loopholes that fewer than half the jobs available in the Iraqi government will be available to those who were afiliated with Ba'ath Pary (by choice or coercion). Does that really give former Ba'athists any hope that they will have an equal say in a 'democratic' Iraqi govenment riven by corruption? Is this truly political reconciliation, or is it a feeble attempt by Maliki to show some form of political progress to justify Bush's surge? Look into this a bit deeper and let me know if you stand by this post as is...


Seth Weinberger said...

[Glad you're reading the blog...great way to get back in touch!]

I don't see how you can see my post as amazing optimism, unless you count everything except for the pessimistic defeatism of the Democratic candidates as such. I repeatedly noted that the de-Baathification law in and of itself is just one step of many needed to cement the gains accrued by the surge. In Update 2, I note many of the concerns about the law...we'll need to wait and see how it plays out in interpretations before we can pass judgment. Don't expect too much too fast...this is going to be a slow process. But so long as it's moving in the right direction, I think there's reason to be optimistic.