See No Good

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

AT SATURDAY'S New Hampshire debate, Democratic candidates were confronted with a question that they have been ducking for some time: Can they concede that the "surge" of U.S. troops in Iraq has worked? All of them vehemently opposed the troop increase when President Bush proposed it a year ago; both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama introduced legislation to reverse it. Now it's indisputable that the surge has drastically reduced violence. Attacks have fallen by more than 60 percent, al-Qaeda has been dealt a major blow, and the threat of sectarian civil war that seemed imminent a year ago has receded. The monthly total of U.S. fatalities in December was the second-lowest of the war.

A reasonable response to these facts might involve an acknowledgment of the remarkable military progress, coupled with a reminder that the final goal of the surge set out by President Bush -- political accords among Iraq's competing factions -- has not been reached. (That happens to be our reaction to a campaign that we greeted with skepticism a year ago.) It also would involve a willingness by the candidates to reconsider their long-standing plans to carry out a rapid withdrawal of remaining U.S. forces in Iraq as soon as they become president -- a step that would almost certainly reverse the progress that has been made.

What Ms. Clinton, Mr. Obama, John Edwards and Bill Richardson instead offered was an exclusive focus on the Iraqi political failures -- coupled with a blizzard of assertions about the war that were at best unfounded and in several cases simply false. Mr. Obama led the way, claiming that Sunni tribes in Anbar province joined forces with U.S. troops against al-Qaeda in response to the Democratic victory in the 2006 elections -- a far-fetched assertion for which he offered no evidence.

Mr. Obama acknowledged some reduction of violence, but said he had predicted that adding troops would have that effect. In fact, on Jan. 8, 2007, he said that in the absence of political progress, "I don't think 15,000 or 20,000 more troops is going to make a difference in Iraq and in Baghdad." He also said he saw "no evidence that additional American troops would change the behavior of Iraqi sectarian politicians and make them start reining in violence by members of their religious groups." Ms. Clinton, for her part, refused to retract a statement she made in September, when she said it would require "a suspension of disbelief" to believe that the surge was working.

Even more disturbing was the refusal of the Democrats to adjust their policies to the changed situation. Ms. Clinton said she didn't "see any reason why [U.S. troops] should remain beyond, you know, today" and outlined a withdrawal plan premised on a defeat comparable to Vietnam ("We have to figure out what we're going to do with the 100,000-plus American civilians who are there" and "all the Iraqis who sided with us. . . . Are we going to leave them?"). Mr. Obama stuck to his plan for "a phased redeployment"; if his scheme of a year ago had been followed, almost all American troops would be out by this March.

Ms. Clinton made one strong point: Even the relatively low number of "23 Americans dying in December is . . . unacceptable" if there is no clear prospect of eventual success. So far, the Bush administration has been slow and feckless in pressing for the national political accords it says are required for a winning outcome. If these are unachievable in the near term, the administration owes the country a revised strategy. But any U.S. policy ought to be aimed at consolidating the gains of the past year and ensuring that neither al-Qaeda nor sectarian war make a comeback. So far, the Democratic candidates have refused even to consider that challenge.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company