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Change That Matters By: Matthew Continetti
The Weekly Standard | Friday, May 30, 2008


General David Petraeus was back in Washington last week. President Bush has promoted him to chief of Central Command (CENTCOM), which requires Senate confirmation. Under Petraeus's leadership, Iraq has changed dramatically. Why can't the Democrats change with it?

Bush announced the surge in January 2007. Iraq was a violent place. Al Qaeda in Iraq held large swaths of territory. Shiite death squads roamed much of Baghdad. The Iraqi political class seemed feckless. Hence Bush's decision to send more troops, replace General George Casey with Petraeus, and change the mission from force protection and search-and-destroy to population security. The new strategy's strongest proponent and supporter was Senator John McCain.

Democrats opposed the surge almost without exception. Barack Obama said that the new policy would neither "make a dent" in the violence plaguing Iraq nor "change the dynamics" there. A month after the president's announcement, Obama declared it was time to remove American combat troops from Iraq. In April, as the surge brigades were on their way to the combat zone, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid proclaimed "this war is lost" and that U.S. troops should pack up and come home. In July, as surge operations were underway, the New York Times editorialized that "it is time for the United States to leave Iraq." The Times's editorial writers recognized Iraq "could be even bloodier and more chaotic after Americans leave." But that didn't matter. "Keeping troops in Iraq will only make things worse."

Wrong. When Petraeus returned to Washington in September 2007, he reported that the numbers of violent incidents, civilian deaths, ethnosectarian killings, and car and suicide bombings had declined dramatically from the previous December. Why? The surge--and the broadening "Awakening" movement, which began when the sheikhs in Anbar province rebelled against al Qaeda in late 2006 and accelerated when the tribal leaders understood America would not abandon them in 2007.

How did Democrats respond? MoveOn.org bought a full-page in the Times suggesting Petraeus had betrayed the American people. Senator Hillary Clinton said that to accept Petraeus's report required the "willing suspension of disbelief." Those Democrats who did not question the facts moved the goal posts instead. They said the surge may have reduced violence, but had not led to the real goal: political reconciliation.

Petraeus returned again to Washington in April of this year. Violence had been reduced further. American casualties had declined significantly. Al Qaeda was virtually limited to the northern city of Mosul. There were more Iraqi Security Forces, and those forces were increasingly capable. The Iraqi government had passed a variety of laws promoting sectarian reconciliation. And the prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, was demonstrating that he was a national leader by meeting with Sunnis and launching military operations against Shiite gangs and Iranian-backed "special groups" in the southern port city of Basra.

Democrats responded this time by saying the Basra operation was a failure and that any reduction in violence only meant Americans could come home sooner rather than later. Wrong again, because (a) despite early missteps the Iraqi army had control of Basra within a couple of weeks, and (b) any precipitous, politically calculated American withdrawal would clearly lead to more violence, not less. What is new is that Petraeus's strategy and tactics, his patience and expertise, have succeeded and now allow some of the surge brigades to return home without replacement--and without a spike in killing. There's every reason to continue his strategy, not abandon it and force a withdrawal.

On May 22, Petraeus was able to tell the Senate that "the number of security incidents in Iraq last week was the lowest in over four years, and it appears that the week that ends tomorrow will see an even lower number of incidents." On May 10, Maliki traveled to Mosul to oversee the launch of a campaign against al Qaeda. The number of attacks in Mosul has already been reduced by 85 percent. Acting CENTCOM commander Martin Dempsey says that Al Qaeda in Iraq is at its weakest state since 2003. Also last week, Iraqi soldiers entered radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr's Sadr City stronghold in Baghdad. They met no resistance.

The Iraqi army and government have done exactly what Democrats have asked of it, and the Democrats remain hostile. Their disdain and animosity has not diminished one iota. Nor has their desire to abandon Iraq to a grim fate.

We keep hearing that this year's presidential election will be about judgment. If so: advantage McCain. For when it comes to the surge, not only have Obama and his party been in error; they have been inflexible in error. They have been so committed to a false narrative of American defeat that they cannot acknowledge the progress that has been made on the ground. That isn't judgment. It's inanity.




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