A fascinating scene
played out in Basra, Iraq, last week. Troops from the
Iraqi Army stood sentinel over the once restive city as followers of rogue
cleric Muqtada al-Sadr muttered dispiritedly that they had been driven from
power. In this Sadrist fiefdom, the erstwhile epicenter of a Shiite insurgency
that many doubted could be contained, the Iraqi army was now law.
Credit this remarkable transformation to Operation Sawlat
al-Fursan, also known as operation Charge of the Knights, which began with
little fanfare and much skepticism in late March. A make-or-break test for the
government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Iraqi armed forces, the
operation was largely led by the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Security
Forces. Their success in routing militia elements in cities like Basra would reveal much about what could realistically be
expected from Iraq.
Democrats were anything but optimistic. Presumptive nominee
Barack Obama allowed that the operation had “resulted in some reduction in
violence” but insisted, counterintuitively, that this only strengthened the
case for rushed troop withdrawals. Hillary Clinton, never one to be pinned down
on policy substance when grandstanding is an option, offered her standard
refrain that the “surge has failed to accomplish its goals.” More candid was
Joe Biden, who back in April was prepared to call a victory … for Sadr. Of Basra, he pronounced, it
“looks to me like, at least on the surface, Sadr may have come out a winner
here.” In the Democrats’ dismal exegesis, the surge had failed, Iraq was
doomed, and withdrawal was the only viable option.
But despair, like hope, is not a policy. Two months on, the
Democrats’ fatalism on Iraq
looks woefully off base. By all significant indicators, Iraqi security forces
have turned the tide against Shiite insurgents. Their improbable control of Basra is only the latest
sign of the shifting balance of power. On the strength of the success in Basra, the military reports that violence in Iraq has
plunged to its lowest level in over four years. Even the New York Times – no instinctive friend to the Bush administration –
reports of Basra that with “Islamist militias evicted from their strongholds by
the Iraqi Army, few doubt that this once-lawless port is in better shape than
it was just two months ago.” Basra
has indeed produced a winner. But contra Joe Biden, it’s not Muqtada al-Sadr.
Just as Shiite die-hards have suffered a devastating reversal,
their Sunni counterparts in al-Qaeda are also in retreat. Witness the results
in Mosul. Considered
by the U.S. and Iraqi forces
to be the terrorists’ last urban stronghold in Iraq,
Mosul less than
a month ago was a soulless Shari’a
state. In keeping with Islamist mores, public expressions of joy were forbidden
and local cultural traditions ruthlessly suppressed. Locals couldn’t even sell
tomatoes and cucumbers side by side at the market, as the juxtaposition was
deemed intolerably provocative by prudish jihadists. Since the beginning of a
joint U.S. Iraqi operation earlier this month, however, attacks are down by 85
percent, at least 200 al-Qaeda terrorists have been netted in sweeps, and normalcy
has been reestablished. Tomatoes and cucumbers, no longer sins against Islam,
are just vegetables again.
It speaks to the misdirection of the party that what is good
and coalition forces is bad for Democrats. Thus, Democrats cannot applaud the recent
rollback of al-Qaeda, since doing so would discredit their assurance that Iraq is wholly
disconnected from the fight against bin Laden’s network. Neither can they
celebrate the Iraqi forces’ success in Basra.
That would contradict the narrative that Iraq is a lost cause best
surrendered to its internal chaos. To acknowledge gains in security, meanwhile,
would be to concede that the American troop presence – that is, the surge that
Senator Harry Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi were confidently
declaring a “failure” last fall – is helping to pacify the country.
Acknowledging that would, of course, nullify the logic of precipitous
withdrawal. The only remaining option is to mouth the mantra that Iraq is a
failure and hope that reality dovetails with defeatism.
Wiser and more principled is the position of John McCain. As
an early proponent of the troop surge, McCain can lay claim to a prescience
that not only eluded many of in his party but that continues to evade his
expected Democratic opponent. Last week, for instance, Barack Obama cast a vote
against the $165 billion funding bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That didn’t derail the
funding bill, which passed the Senate anyway, but it did place Obama squarely
on the side that has given up on the surge and, by extension, on the Iraq war. Buoyed
by some polls, Obama is clearly betting that military defeat in Iraq will
translate into political victory at home.
McCain may yet have the better of that argument. Against the
increasingly tone-deaf attacks from Democrats, he can point out that Iraqi
troops have defied expectations to perform competently and sometimes
impressively, even without U.S.
support; that the Shiite and Sunni terrorists have been substantially repelled;
and that political reconciliation is for the first time visible on the horizon.
He can add, too, that all this is dependent on the surge strategy that he
championed and that Obama threatens to undo.
Seen in this light, the Democrats’ tactic of calling the
surge the “Cheney-Bush-McCain” strategy may well boomerang to their
disadvantage. Naturally, there will be those who scoff at the notion that Iraq could be
an asset for McCain in the general election. But it’s worth bearing in mind
that these same prognosticators just a month ago were instructing that Iraq’s future belonged
to Sadr’s brigands and al-Qaeda’s killers. Of the presidential candidates, only
John McCain can credibly pledge that he won’t let that happen.