The Washington Clock Runs Down
In early 2005, Americans still seemed interested in the war in Iraq. If I mentioned that I had been a soldier there, they wanted to learn more about the country and how our troops were faring. By the end of 2005, as the violence continued to rise, they began to seem less interested, and by mid-2006 nobody wanted to talk about the war.
Regardless of their feelings about the troops or the case for going to war, Americans I spoke with last year either wanted to ignore Iraq or believed it was already lost. That seems to be the prevailing sentiment today, and it's something the Democratic Party has used to great effect: We've lost the war, so let's get out.
Yet as at least some citizens -- and lawmakers and members of the media -- anticipate Gen. David Petraeus's report to Congress next month on Iraq, it's important to remember that the war is as much a battle of perceptions as it is a physical battle against and among armed groups. In this fight, the appearance of strength or weakness is often much more important than actual strength or weakness.
Mistakes made from 2003 to 2006, whether they involved misjudging Iraqi resistance or implementing misguided policies, left U.S. forces looking increasingly weak, while insurgents and militias appeared to gain strength. It is understandable that many Americans have become disillusioned, just as many Iraqis have.
Much of the violence in Iraq last year was the outward manifestation of Iraqis realizing that the United States was an increasingly irrelevant force. Since shortly after the 2003 invasion, U.S. forces demonstrated an inability to protect anyone consistently. Iraqis watched as America became divided over the war and its merits, a split that culminated in the Democrats' congressional victories in November. It gradually became clear to Iraqis that the United States was going to leave Iraq in a shambles. Their government did not appear capable of providing security, so many Iraqis reasoned that they would have to choose sides to survive.
Joining a militia thus became a rational choice. The sectarian fighting and the intra-Sunni and intra-Shiite violence that spiked last year occurred as various armed groups positioned themselves to take power and Iraqis scrambled to find ways to protect themselves.
While debate over a war's merits -- and whether to withdraw -- is a sign of a healthy democracy, Iraq unfortunately highlights many of the difficulties a democracy faces in a long-term counterinsurgency or nation-building campaign. Such debate can be detrimental to the battle for perceptions. Having linked its future to an antiwar stance, the Democratic Congress has in effect told Iraqis that they are best off joining militias, because the dissolution of Iraq is only going to accelerate.
Mismanagement by the Bush administration and an unquestioning Republican Congress may have set the stage for the sectarian violence of 2006, but Democratic efforts to pull out troops, cut off support or link support to unattainable benchmarks have been equally damaging to attempts to get militias and insurgents to lay down their arms.
In the long run, neither Americans nor Iraqis will benefit from a hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops. Yet, because Iraq has become a political liability for Republicans, and because Democrats increasingly view and treat it as an opportunity, the timing associated with both parties' Iraq policies centers on the 2008 campaign calendar, not on the realities of the war. Gen. Petraeus put it this way in April: "The Washington clock is moving more rapidly than the Baghdad clock." Translation: Party politics matters more than the results of a distant war. Though the pacification of much of western Iraq provides evidence of substantial gains in the past six months, the battle of perceptions is all but lost, and with it, the political clock has run out.
Today, Iraqi insurgents need only bide their time. They will continue to carry out acts of violence such as the Aug. 14 truck bombings in unprotected Yazidi villages, to reinforce the belief that they are unstoppable. Armed groups will jockey for position street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, wherever they are able to exploit the lack of a coalition presence. Unless the Iraqi government is able to assert itself, the civil conflict will worsen as U.S. troops withdraw.
One can only hope that leaders in both parties are wise enough to recognize the perils of a rapid withdrawal and take steps to ensure that Iraq does not descend into chaos -- and that the thousands of Iraqis who have stood with us as stalwart allies are not left to perish in that chaos.
The writer is a former Army officer who served in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2003 and 2004. He is a co-author of the military's counterinsurgency field manual.