Analyst Urges Patience on Iraq, Seeing Chance for Some Gains

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 9, 2007

Anthony H. Cordesman, a military expert and consistent critic of the Bush administration's strategy in Iraq, released a report yesterday calling for "strategic patience" in the nation's approach to the war, describing the U.S. military's modest security gains amid dire assessments of the lack of political progress in Iraq.

In his 25-page analysis -- titled "The Tenuous Case for Strategic Patience in Iraq" -- Cordesman wrote that the United States "does not have good options in Iraq and cannot dictate its future, only influence it," and that it is up to the Iraqi government to make strides toward stability. A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops probably would not help matters, he wrote, but if the Iraqis make progress, then Congress and the U.S. military need to work toward gradual troop reductions that reflect realities on the ground.

"The real case for strategic patience . . . is not the high probability of success in most areas, but the reasonable prospect of success in some areas," wrote Cordesman, a scholar with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He added that key elements of the president's troop increase strategy, however, "remain discouraging."

The assessment comes just weeks before a much-awaited report on Iraq by Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker is due to Congress. Cordesman and other members of Washington think tanks have been touring the battlefield in Iraq in recent weeks and have written reports aimed at influencing the debate over U.S. war strategy. Much of their analysis has included a more positive view of recent U.S. military actions, while emphasizing how the Iraqi government has hindered overall progress.

Cordesman returned two weeks ago from an eight-day trip through Iraq with Brookings Institution analysts Michael E. O'Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack, whose op-ed article in the New York Times last week described new optimism based on their conversations with commanders and observations in places such as Ramadi, Baghdad and Mosul. O'Hanlon and Pollack, who have been critical of the U.S. war strategy, returned believing that meaningful progress has been made on the military front though much needs to be done politically, such as in the key area of reconciliation between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

In interviews yesterday, O'Hanlon and Pollack said they expected to be frustrated by what they saw in Iraq but instead came away with the view that there has been progress, if only with marginal results.

"We all came out more optimistic than we went in," said Pollack, whose 2002 book "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq" was influential in the run-up to the war. "The trends so far look good, the evidence they were showing us was good, and these were modest steps. Modest steps over big parts of the country equal something significant. . . . But there are a lot of hurdles to be overcome. It's still a long shot."

Cordesman declined to discuss his report yesterday, but his critical assessments of the situation there -- calling the drop in violence due as much to luck as anything else -- were tempered with optimism about the war. He urged Congress not to seek military situation reports or rushes to achieve benchmarks, advocating a more cautious, long-term approach.

"While all the half truths and spin of the past have built up a valid distrust of virtually anything the Administration says about Iraq, real military progress is taking place and the U.S. team in Baghdad is actively seeking matching political and economic progress," Cordesman wrote, pointing to statistics that show that violence in several parts of the country has dropped recently. "What is critical to understand, however, is that while the surge strategy has had value in some areas, much of this progress has not [been] the function of the surge strategy, U.S. planning, or action by the Maliki government."

Senior defense officials said privately that they were pleased with O'Hanlon and Pollack's article and that the overall assessments have largely matched Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates's view that the U.S. military has had security successes but the Iraqi political system has not yielded progress.

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