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Can the Democrats Say Yes?

Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, with a tribal leader in Anbar province this month.
Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, with a tribal leader in Anbar province this month. (By John Moore -- Getty Images)

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By David Ignatius
Sunday, September 9, 2007

A leading Democratic Party strategist is trying to explain how the politics of Iraq are likely to play out in the days after Gen. David Petraeus gives his report tomorrow on the progress of the war. The strategist grabs my notebook and writes out the word "yes."

"The challenge for us is whether we will be able to take 'yes' for an answer," explains this prominent Democrat. By "yes," he means the likelihood that President Bush will follow up Petraeus's declaration that security conditions have improved modestly by announcing that he will begin reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq this year -- as Bush said he would like to do during a brief stop in Iraq last week.

The strategist notes that the administration is simultaneously moving toward a second longtime Democratic goal -- of allowing a "soft partition" of Iraq at a time when national political reconciliation seems impossible. This soft-partition approach is inherent in Petraeus's "bottom-up" alliance with Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province, which is the big success he and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will report. The consistent champion of this idea of bottom-up devolution of power has been Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden. So that's a "yes," too, if the Democrats choose to accept it.

The Democratic strategist takes my notebook again and writes out the statement he would like to issue after Bush announces that he intends to begin withdrawing U.S. troops: "This is an important and historic step away from the status quo of more troops, more money, more time and more of the same. It is however the first step, and only the first step."

That's the smart Democratic strategy, he argues, to take credit for altering the course of the war. "We have to stop saying we're going to end the war, because we can't," the strategist cautions. But he fears that congressional Democrats, pushed by an angry base, will continue to schedule votes for funding cutoffs and troop-withdrawal dates. That may appeal to the base but not to the country as a whole, the strategist fears.

The political challenge for everyone will be to find ways of defining success downward. That has always been the essence of an exit strategy -- to cobble together enough evidence of progress in the Mesopotamian deserts that you can declare victory and begin the long process of bringing the troops home. And by long, I mean up to two years, as antiwar Democrats such as Sen. Barack Obama have come to realize. Iraq is the next president's problem, too.

Petraeus and Crocker are likely to begin this process of downward definition tomorrow. The U.S. troop surge was conceived as a way of creating political space for compromise between Sunnis and Shiites, but that hasn't happened. Rather than a national coming together, Petraeus's counterinsurgency approach has encouraged local solutions -- and the further devolution of power. The price of success in Anbar, in other words, is that it has further undermined the nation-building goal that had been America's project in Iraq. The same could be said of the other Iraqi success story, the all-but-autonomous Kurdistan.

Centrist Democrats and Republicans -- "the responsibles," as Charles Peters of Washington Monthly likes to call them -- have rallied recently around the Iraq Study Group report that was issued nine months ago. I have shared the enthusiasm for a redeployment of U.S. forces that emphasizes training the Iraqi military, fighting al-Qaeda and policing Iraq's borders to prevent the spillover of civil war. That still seems like the right set of basic principles.

But for the report's advocates, this week's debates should include a reality check. The Iraq Study Group's call for training a national Iraqi army was the very essence of the nation-building strategy that, unfortunately, hasn't been working. A report by retired Gen. James Jones last week concluded that the Iraqi military was far from ready to take over security responsibility. If we agree with Petraeus that the tribal sheiks in Anbar and their U.S.-armed militias are the best hope in combating al-Qaeda, we have to accept that this will undermine the aspiration of training a national army that can unite Iraq's Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Regional solutions, in the short run, are the enemy of national ones.

On the eve of Petraeus's report, the Iraq war is turned upside down. The Sunnis who were our worst enemies are now our best friends. The Shiites for whom we fought the war of liberation are increasingly obstacles to reconciliation, and thus our foes. Today's actual successes undermine yesterday's plans for success. As the Democratic strategist suggests, it's time to take yes for an answer -- and begin taking chips off this gambling table where our costly bets about the future are little more than guesses.

The writer is co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.


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