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They Can't Handle the Truth By: Fred Barnes
The Weekly Standard | Tuesday, January 08, 2008

There’s a truth the Democratic presidential candidates can't handle: the success of the "surge" in Iraq. The addition of American troops and the adoption of a new strategy of protecting the civilian population has now dramatically reduced the level of violence in Baghdad and pacified other parts of Iraq as well. But the Democratic candidates insist on pretending otherwise.

It isn't clear whether they were uninformed, out of touch, mistaken, politically fearful, or knowingly dishonest when they were asked to comment on the surge during an ABC television debate Saturday night in New Hampshire. In any case, their refusal to acknowledge success in Iraq marked a low point in the Democratic campaign.

The most disappointing answer came from Barack Obama, the frontrunner in the race and a candidate who touts himself as one who would end political polarization in Washington and forge bipartisan solutions. But he's not likely to produce any bipartisanship on Iraq.

Obama claimed the decision by Sunnis in Iraq to embrace American forces was a response to the Democratic capture of Congress in the 2006 election. Sunnis in Anbar province "started to see, after the Democrats were elected in 2006, you know what?" They saw the likelihood of a withdrawal of U.S. troops and feared they "would be left very vulnerable to the Shias," Obama said. So they joined the Americans.

This is a figment of Obama's imagination. There's no evidence for this explanation--quite the contrary. Even before the 2006 election, Sunnis had begun to turn against al Qaeda, their one-time ally in the insurgency, and its brutal tactics. Their rebellion against al Qaeda even has a name, the Sunni Awakening. Desperate for help against al Qaeda terrorists that they turned to Americans.

The Sunni rebellion has now spread to other provinces, particularly those with mixed Sunni-Shia populations. And political reconciliation between Sunnis and Shia is underway at the provincial level. Obama should have known this. Perhaps he did but was wary of veering from his anti-Iraq position. His bizarre take on the Sunnis remains exclusive to him.

Bill Richardson was worse than Obama. Calling Iraq "a massive failure," he made a string of inaccurate claims. He said there had been no reconciliation. Wrong. He said there had been no sharing of oil revenues. Wrong. He said the Iraq government had made no effort to train more security forces. Wrong. He said there was only a political solution in Iraq but not a military solution. The truth is, both are required.

John Edwards provided a whopper of his own. He said the withdrawal of British troops from southern Iraq caused "a significant reduction in violence." In fact, it was the British presence--not the withdrawal--for so many months that had pacified that region.

Hillary Clinton also refused to acknowledge any success in Iraq. She reaffirmed what she told General David Petraeus, the American commander in Iraq, last September during a Senate hearing. Then, she said she had to "suspend disbelief" to accept Petraeus's testimony that the surge was working.

Did she still feel that way about the surge? "That's right," Clinton told debate moderator Charles Gibson, the ABC News anchor. "Because, remember, the purpose behind the surge was to create the space and time for political reconciliation, for the Iraqi government to do what only it can do and trying to deal with the myriad of unresolved problems that confront it."

Absent Iraqi action, "it's time to bring our troops home and to bring them home as quickly and responsibly as possible," she said.

Clinton was at least partially correct. A goal of the surge was to create a political environment conducive to reconciliation and other positive steps by the Iraqi government. But that is "a" goal, not "the" goal as Clinton suggested. Another goal is to reduce the violence and secure Baghdad and protect the city's residents. That has been achieved. Still another is to defeat al Qaeda in Iraq. That is close to being achieved.

The Democratic candidates have now left themselves in the embarrassing position of denying reality. And they are at odds with many Democrats who've traveled to Iraq recently and concluded the surge is succeeding.

It's too much to expect for Democrats to abandon their antiwar position on Iraq. That would alienate the large antiwar bloc of voters in the Democratic party.

But there's another option--the honest alternative. They could have noted the surge is working, but that much more needs to be done in Iraq. And if the Iraqi government does what's required, that might call for a new policy.

But Iraqi leaders must move quickly, since Americans are still dying in Iraq. At the moment, however, there's no reason to expect serious political progress at the national level in Iraq. So the only policy that makes sense is to begin withdrawal of troops.

Sad to say, none of the Democratic candidates came close to saying anything like that.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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