In civilian clothes, Lt. General David Petraeus, the newly appointed Commander of the U.S. forces in Iraq, looks more like an academic discussing an intellectual topic rather than a war leader preparing for battle.
However, in an informal "off-off-off-the-record" exchange, over a plate of cheese and grapes and bottles of mineral water in a London restaurant, the general, on his way to Baghdad, showed that he knows what he's after. And that, compared to the contradictions that have plagued U.S. policy in Iraq since before the liberation, is refreshing.
Petraeus begins his mission with three advantages over his predecessors.
The first is his reassuringly deep understanding of the Iraqis, their sensibilities and their complexities. Having picked up a smattering of Arabic over his long tenures in Iraq, Petraeus seems to have also developed a genuine sympathy for Iraqis.
Second: His predecessors - especially Gen. George W. Casey Jr., a successful war leader by normal standards - have achieved much in what matters in the long run: the creation of a new Iraqi army capable of defending the country against internal and external foes. It is in recognition of that fact that the new operation for restoring security to Baghdad will be under Iraqi command.
Finally, Petraeus arrives on the scene at a time when both the insurgency and the Shiite militias are facing major problems.
* Having failed to achieve their "Ramadan Objectives," which included the creation of an "Islamic Emirate of Iraq" somewhere in the ethnic fault-lines west of Baghdad, the insurgents are being sucked into turf wars. They're also losing some funding sources as moderate Arab states begin to disrupt networks that raised money for jihadists in Iraq.
* The Shiite mischief-makers, especially the loose coalition known as the Mahdi Army, are also splintering under military pressure from Iraqi and U.S. forces. Since December, hundreds of Mahdi fighters have fled to Iran - following their nominal leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who is in Qom. More than 1,000 others have been killed or captured.
The broader regional picture also looks promising. America's Arab allies have rallied to create a front to oppose Iran's strategy (as part of its proxy war against Washington) of fomenting chaos in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon. The new front has succeeded in frustrating attempts by Hezbollah and its Maronite allies to topple the Lebanese government. It has also taken initiatives to stop Tehran's domination of Hamas, thus preventing the mullahs from extending their sphere of influence to the Palestinian territories.
Nevertheless, Petraeus still faces a number of major problems - the most important one being uncertainty in Washington.
There is little doubt that many elements within America's political elite want the United States to fail, for a variety of motives. At least some of those elements would do all they can, short of being charged with unpatriotic behavior, to ensure that the outcome of the war in Iraq is seen as a defeat for the United States - even if it is not so in reality.
Portraying Iraq as a failure isn't hard. To pronounce Petraeus' mission a failure, all that defeat-mongers in Washington need is one car bomb a day and one suicide attack a week.
Uncertainty in Washington will encourage the Iraqi protagonists to hedge their bets, rather than throw all their weight behind Petraeus' mission. In any war, people rally to the side that is perceived to have the highest threshold of pain, and is likely to stay the course the longest.
When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says that she does not consider Iraq to be "a war to win, but a situation to manage," Iraqis otherwise likely to side with Petraeus will think twice. All this past week, the discussion in Baghdad teahouses centered on a mystery: How could so many senators declare support for U.S. troops in Iraq while pressing for a resolution to oppose their mission?
The one factor that can ensure Petraeus success is the perception that the United States is united in its commitment to the new Iraq that America has helped create from the ruins of the Saddamite tyranny.
The insurgents, the al Qaeda terrorists and the Shiite militias know that they can't win in military terms. What they hope for is to win politically - that is to say, ensuring defeat and humiliation for the United States.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's chief theoretician, has repeatedly said that the key aim of his so-called jihad in Iraq is to force the Americans to run away, as the Soviets did from Afghanistan in 1989.
The reference to Afghanistan is interesting. The "Arab Afghans," of which al Qaeda is the most notorious group, played no more than a cameo role in driving the Soviets out. And the Taliban - a group created by Pakistan five years after the Soviet departure - never fought the Communists.
The Communist regime in Kabul was overthrown by an alliance of a Tajik guerrilla army (led by Ahmad Shah Massoud) and a Communist militia - whose leader, the Uzbek Abdul-Rashid Dostum, had decided to switch sides. Years later, Dostum told me that he decided to switch when his Moscow "contacts" told him that the new Soviet elite under Mikhail Gorbachev was no longer interested in Afghanistan's fate.
With help from Pakistan's military, the Taliban and al Qaeda seized power in Kabul four years after the communist regime fell. Yet, for decades, jihadists of all ilks have claimed that they liberated Afghanistan and destroyed the Soviet empire.
The Iraqi version of the Taliban, plus al Qaeda and Shiite mischief-makers, can't win a military victory in Iraq just as their counterparts in Afghanistan failed to achieve victory.
With a combination of intelligence, patience and determination, Petraeus can win in Baghdad.
The battleground where his chances do not appear as good is Washington. The United States today has become home to a veritable industry of defeat - producing books, TV documentaries, research papers, intelligence analyses and feature movies destined for a growing market. Almost every day, some article assuming that the United States has already been defeated in Iraq, and recommendmeasures to deal with the consequences of defeat. And when the United States does something, it does it Big: The defeat industry is assuming a bewildering scale.
The citizen-soldier Petraeus is certain to win in Baghdad - just as Gens. Tommy Frank, Rick Sanchez and Casey did in different contexts. But will Washington allow his win to be recognized as victory?
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