Thou shalt not speak well of Iraq. That was the commandment imperiously handed down by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week, in anticipation of General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s testimony before Congress. Alluding to the recent clashes between U.S. and Iraqi forces and rogue Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr’s militia, Pelosi preemptively reproached the general: “I hope we don’t hear any glorification of what happened in Basra.” It was a vivid illustration of what has become the calcified consensus of the Democratic Party: When it comes to Iraq, all news is bad news.
General Petraeus, to be sure, did not come to Washington to romanticize the struggles in Iraq. As befitting the analytical strategist that he is, Petraeus kept to a just-the-facts approach, calling the achievements to date "significant but uneven" and "fragile and reversible” in the absence of a sustained commitment by the United States. By way of illustration, he noted that while violence recently has been on the rise, most notably in Basra and Baghdad, the overall security picture has improved markedly. Both the number of major terrorist attacks and the number of civilian deaths has plummeted in recent months.
There was much else in the general’s testimony to defy the Democrats’ fatalism. Contrary to the Democrats’ preferred image of Iraq as a country in disarray, Petraeus related that half of Iraq’s 18 provinces are under government control, with the once-restive province of Anbar expected to join the list in the months to come – a testament to the success of the much-maligned “surge” strategy and the directly related decline in the influence of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Against the critics’ charge that Iraq is an endless drain on American resources, Petraeus pointed out that Iraqis are assuming an ever-larger role for their own security, with Iraqi Security Forces growing to 540,000 troops.
In spotlighting such successes, Petraeus never downplayed the numerous challenges that remain. Despite the encouraging growth in Iraqi troop strength, for instance, individual “units and leaders found wanting in some cases.” Even more problematic, according to Petraeus, is the role of foreign actors, most prominently Iran. The general pointed out that the recent fighting in Basra “highlighted the destructive role Iran has played in funding, training, arming, and directing the so-called special groups….” Funded, trained and directed by Iran's Quds Force and Hezbollah, these “special groups pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq.”
To say that Democrats did not distinguish themselves in their responses to the general’s testimony is to understate the case. Although the competition for most embarrassing comment ran fierce, top honors surely had to go to Howard Dean. Following the general’s testimony, the Democratic National Committee chairman sent out a fundraising letter assailing Sen. John McCain’s “huge gaffe.” That supposed gaffe? “At least five times as a candidate John McCain has stated that Iran (a Shiite nation) is supporting Al-Qaeda (a Sunni group) in Iraq. This is not some minor mistake, but a significant gaffe. He clearly does not understand the sensitive political dynamics in that region of the world.” In reality, McCain never described al-Qaeda as a Shiite group. What he has said – and what Petraeus’s testimony amply confirmed – is that Iran remains a leading sponsor of terror in Iraq. That leading Democrats persist in denying that fact speaks volumes about their seriousness in the war on terror.
No better was the performance of the Democratic presidential candidates. In his remarks, General Petraeus stressed the importance of maintaining a troop presence to consolidate the progress made in recent months. Drawing down troops was a key priority, but it had to be done “without jeopardizing the security gains that have been made.” To that end, Petraeus advised against further troop withdrawals after the last of the “surge” troops leave this summer.
The logic of that position plainly escaped Hillary Clinton. When her turn to question Petraeus came, Clinton lashed out at the notion that a too-hasty withdrawal would be irresponsible. “I think it could be fair to say that it might well be irresponsible to continue the policy that has not produced the results that have been promised time and time again at such tremendous cost.” Clinton thus dismissed the demonstrable results that the surge already has produced and committed herself to the one course – premature withdrawal – that would be the most likely to undo them. It was an impressive performance only in comparison to her disgraceful exhibition last September, when she all-but called Petraeus a liar and insisted that it would require a “willing suspension of disbelief” to support the U.S. policy in Iraq. Events, needless to say, have been unkind to that view.
Only slightly more pragmatic was the reaction of frontrunner Barack Obama. The Illinois senator had kind words for the general and, to his credit, offered a commendably realistic vision of achievable success in Iraq, one in which “there's still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it's not a threat to its neighbors and it's not an al-Qaeda base.”
Yet there is one flaw in the kind of success that Obama believes to be within reach: It will be fatally undermined by the immediate withdrawal of troops that has been a centerpiece of Obama’s campaign. Thus, General Petraeus took pains to emphasize that routing al-Qaeda could not be achieved only with counterterrorist strikes. It would require, among other things, “major operations by coalition and Iraqi conventional forces,” as well as “sophisticated intelligence effort.” To remove American troops on Obama’s accelerated timeline, then, would be to frustrate the very real progress that is being made to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq.
In the end, neither Democratic candidate gave any indication that they understand the stakes in Iraq. Nor was there any evidence that they – or anyone else in their party – would be willing to make the necessary if unpopular decisions needed for success. Sen. Joe Lieberman, himself gracelessly purged from his former party, was entirely on the mark when he described the Democrats’ attitude this week as “hear no progress in Iraq, see no progress in Iraq, and most of all, speak of no progress in Iraq.”
That left Sen. McCain the lone adult in the presidential race. Not shying away from the difficult questions – McCain pressed Petraeus about the underperformance of some Iraqi security forces – the senator nonetheless put the war in its proper context: “Successes is within reach,” he said. “Yet should the United States instead choose to withdraw from Iraq before adequate security is established, we will exchange for this victory, a defeat that is terrible and long lasting.” It was a statement that underscored yet again the difference between McCain and his Democratic counterparts. While Sens. Obama and Clinton are playing to the anti-war gallery, McCain, alone among the presidential contenders, is auditioning for the role of commander-in-chief. It need hardly be said that success in Iraq is far from assured. But there is no gainsaying that progress – though often painfully slow – continues to be made. That was by no means obvious last fall, when top Democrats were mocking advocates of the surge as fantasists detached from reality. If General Petraeus's remarks confirmed one thing, it is that today it is the Democratic Party and its presidential paladins who are hopelessly out of touch.