Operation Phantom Thunder, the first real effect of the Iraq troop surge of the past six months, is improving the battlefield situation in Baghdad and the surrounding towns. But in Washington, those who believe the war is already lost--call it the Clinton-Lugar axis--are mounting a surge of their own. Ground won in Iraq becomes ground lost at home.
The most notable defeat last week in Washington was the speech given by Richard Lugar, the senior statesman and senator from Indiana and voice of moderate Republicanism. On Monday, Lugar announced that he had concluded that the surge was irrelevant: "The prospects that the current surge strategy will succeed . . . are very limited within the period framed by our own domestic political debate." And while President Bush may want to hang tough, "the resulting contentiousness with Congress would make cooperation on national security issues nearly impossible." That is, Bush's commitment to victory is disrupting Lugar's desire to restore bipartisanship.
Lugar allowed that the surge might well improve things in Iraq. Indeed he allowed that they already have: "I do not doubt the assessments of military commanders that there has been progress in security." But he doesn't even want to hear General David Petraeus's report in September. "Persisting indefinitely with the surge strategy will delay policy adjustments that have a better chance of protecting our vital interests over the long term." Lugar's interests include "more regular contact with Syria and Iran with less drama and rhetoric" and addressing "the two elephants in the room," the Arab-Israeli conflict and our need for oil. This sounds an awful lot like James Baker, Lee Hamilton, and the Iraq Study Group.
It also sounds like a speech given by Senator Hillary Clinton last week at the coming-out party for a new Washington think tank, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). This group--if the rather awkward name summons echoes of the Project for a New American Century, well, it's supposed to--has brought together a powerful collection of veterans of the Clinton administration. Without doubt, CNAS will provide the intellectual muscle behind the 2008 Clinton campaign. And it is these New Clintonistas who are also breathing new life into the otherwise moribund ISG recommendations.
Indeed, coincident with its "inaugural" conference at the Willard Hotel, CNAS released an extended Iraq report--"Phased Transition: A Responsible Way Forward and Out of Iraq"--that might as well have served as the script for both Lugar and Clinton. But if its authors, James Miller and Shawn Brimley, are fresh figures, their ideas are pretty stale. To begin with, the report styles itself as "build[ing] explicitly on ISG recommendations." CNAS wants to put more effort into the so-called New Diplomatic Initiative and other attempts to turn the problem of Iraq over to others in the region, including Iran and Syria--which of course are a big part of the problem.
If the overall policy approach is recycled Baker-Hamilton, the military strategy is recycled Rumsfeld-Casey. Indeed, an agonizingly "phased" transition, beginning immediately but continuing until December 2012--a cynic would say just in time for President Clinton to get out of Iraq entirely before her reelection campaign--constitutes the core of the CNAS report. Of course, the surge stops now; even though the report concedes "it is too soon to declare the 'surge' a success or failure" and admits the prospect of a post-withdrawal "genocide," it's not too soon to give up. After all, the continued erosion of domestic political will is "inevitable."
But, in a revealing twist, CNAS sees this also as an "opportunity" to revive the transition-and-train policy envisioned by General George Casey shortly before he was relieved of command in Iraq. To be fair, the report's authors have thought the training part of the program through in great detail, offering several different models of advisory teams for the Iraqi police and interior ministry as well as the army. But the underlying strategy is "Iraqis-stand-up-so-we-can-stand-down," the old, failed approach of 2003 through 2006.
The new wrinkle in the CNAS report is that it pretends to be an alternative to something worse, a precipitous withdrawal. In this regard it is as much an attack on the Democrats to Hillary's left--certainly John Edwards, but less directly Barack Obama. Thus the report elaborates "Three No's" for a post-surge posture: no al Qaeda safe havens, no regional war, no genocide. The idea is to create and maintain "an internal balance of power among Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds that reduces the chances of mass violence." But how an American withdrawal will increase our leverage with Iraqi factions, let alone with an almost-nuclear Iran and other regional powers, is mystifying.
This is the final fantasy of Lugar-Clinton and the Washington establishment: that withdrawal in the face of multiple and highly motivated enemies can be neatly calibrated--extended through 2012 in the CNAS concept. And it is in this respect, too, that the view from Washington is badly out of touch with the view from Baghdad. Petraeus, his troops, and their Iraqi counterparts know they're in a war--a blood-soaked "act of force to compel the enemy to do our will," as a famous Prussian once put it. Indeed, the methods of al Qaeda, driven by religious zeal, come as close to embodying the Clausewitzian notions of "absolute war" and "maximum use of force" as can be found in the modern world.
The image of senatorial probity, Lugar ultimately sounds more like an investor rebalancing his portfolio, selling Iraq and buying Israel-Palestine, than a man thinking about strategy in war. Likewise, the CNAS report is written in the "risk-management" rhetoric of Pentagon planners. There's a complex flow chart that explains their "responsible way forward" transition plan; it includes a little box detailing the possibility of a "contested withdrawal"--that is, what might well happen if, as in the final withdrawal from Saigon, all hell breaks loose. But when you're sure that the "way out" is the only "responsible way forward," defeat is simply an "unfortunate contingency."