Code Pink protestors screamed, Democrats grumbled, and MoveOn.org, in a full-page ad in the New York Times, all but called him a traitor. But they failed to prevent General David Petraeus from delivering his much-anticipated testimony about the state of security in Iraq.
Now that he has, it’s easy to see why antiwar activists and legislators would be up in arms. For in the course of his remarks, Petraeus cast decisive doubt on their faith-based belief that the Iraq war is hopelessly lost and that immediate withdrawal is the only reasonable course of action.
Especially grating to antiwar ears must have been Petraeus’s conclusion that the military objectives to bring security and stability to Iraq are “in large measure” being met. Seconding the key judgment of last month’s National Intelligence Estimate, the general reported that, despite continuing violence, overall security has improved. Civilian deaths have declined, with the number of terrorist attacks ebbing to its lowest point since June of 2006. Most striking has been the improvement in Baghdad, where violence has declined by 70 percent since the start of the surge. High-profile terrorist attacks may grab all the headlines. But beneath the media’s radar, security, the prerequisite for any lasting political solution to Iraq’s chaos, is spreading.
A principal reason for the decline in overall violence is that terrorist organizations in Iraq have taken a beating in recent months. By General Petraeus’s count, U.S. armed forces have killed and captured some 2,600 al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq this year alone. The result? Suicide terror strikes and car bombings have fallen in each of the past five months. In that context, the general appropriately highlighted the developments in Anbar province, where Sunni sheiks have joined with U.S. forces to expel al-Qaeda aligned jihadists. To reports that the province signals impressive success for U.S. military strategy, the general added some empirical heft, pointing out that terrorist attacks have fallen from 1,350 last October to just over 200 last month.
Petraeus’s bottom line might be summed up in this way: It’s too early to conclude that the United States is winning in Iraq. But it does not go beyond the available evidence to say that the terrorists are loosing. Small wonder that some war opponents are outraged.
Nothing if not diplomatic, Petraeus was careful to stress that “innumerable challenges lie ahead.” He observed that despite a 55 percent decrease nationwide, ethnic and sectarian violence persists in “troubling” numbers. Compounding the problem, Iraqi security forces remain riven by tribal, ethnic and religious loyalties. Beyond making national reconciliation more difficult, the sectarian nature of the Iraqi forces also undermines their ability to perform effectively and independently of American support.
An equally serious threat to Iraqi stability is external: Iran. In a revelation that must have displeased many of on the antiwar side -- who claim, in defiance of all evidence, that Iran has no connection to the violence in Iraq -- General Petraeus noted that one of the military’s biggest failures was its tardiness in recognizing the extent of Iran’s involvement in fueling terrorism in Iraq. Not only do Shiite militias and insurgent groups receive support from Iran, Petraeus said, but Iran’s terrorist creation, Hezbollah, is also implicated in the violence. According to Petraeus, a “senior Lebanese Hezbollah operative” is among those captured by American forces in Iraq. If there was any doubt that Iran is in a proxy war with the United States, the general’s testimony should settle it.
That won’t happen, of course, not least because the disclosure of Iranian influence -- to say nothing of the qualified success of the military surge -- presents a problem for the Democratic Congress. Having pronounced the war a failure instead of awaiting the evidence, Democrats and their media allies are now in the unenviable position of trying to tarnish the reputation of one of the military’s most respected commanders in General Petraeus. To that end, Democrats in the run-up to yesterday’s testimony sought to depict Petraeus as an agent of the Bush administration. Senate Majority Whip Dick. Durbin sneered last week that the general’s report to Congress was really the “Bush Report.” In an appearance on Fox News this Sunday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein launched her own preemptive strike on the general’s credibility. “I don’t think he’s an independent evaluator,” she insisted.
Inconveniently for the senators, proof of Petraeus’ supposed servility to the White House is conspicuous by its absence. As the general pointed out in his remarks, his report to Congress had clearance neither from the White House nor from the Pentagon. Apart from that, as all but the most die-hard partisan would concede, Petraeus went out of his way to deliver his remarks with the proper nuance. Even as he spotlighted assorted successes, he also acknowledged that the situation in Iraq was “complex, difficult, and sometimes downright frustrating.” Agree or disagree with his conclusions, the general was undeniably fair and balanced.
This points up what is, for Democrats at least, a more troubling dilemma: the possibility that many Americans will agree with the general’s assessment. Though it’s impossible to gauge the public reaction just yet, the early evidence points precisely in this direction. Consider the New York Times/CBS News poll released yesterday. It found that 68 percent of Americans trust military commanders -- as opposed to the White House and Congress -- to successfully resolve the Iraq war. And given that Petraeus has dissented from the leading Democratic proposals for Iraq -- from immediate withdrawal, which he speculated would have “dangerous results,” to a transition of security responsibility from coalition forces to Iraqi security forces, which he said would be “not be adequate” without maintaining the surge -- the possibility that political momentum will shift from the anti-war side just as the presidential election kicks off in earnest must be cause for concern among party strategists.
Since the beginning of the surge last spring, Democrats have either dismissed its significance or declared it a dead end. The bet was that a public that had soured on the war would appreciate their calculated defeatism. Now, General Petraeus’ testimony provides only the most recent reason for thinking that military progress is being made. The electorate meanwhile seems willing to defer to the commander’s judgment. That certainly suggests a failure of strategy. Just not the one underway in Iraq.