Iraq Report Redux

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

WHEN GEN. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker last testified before Congress in September, the military results of the U.S. troop surge in Iraq, though significant, were still so preliminary that much of the debate centered on whether they were real. When the two men appeared again yesterday, the reduction of violence had been so great as to be undeniable. Sen. Barack Obama, who predicted that the surge would not slow the bloodshed, was among the Democrats who acknowledged yesterday that it had. Similarly, seven months ago, Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker were hard-pressed to cite any movement by Iraqi leaders toward the political accords the surge was supposed to facilitate; the best Mr. Crocker could do was to say he had seen "seeds of reconciliation." Yesterday he was able to tick off a series of significant steps, including agreement on provincial elections that could transform Iraq's political landscape.

Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker have gotten more confident about calling the surge a success, and rightly so. "It's worth it," said the general. "We have seen a significant degradation of al-Qaeda's presence and its abilities," said the ambassador. "Al-Qaeda is our mortal and strategic enemy. So to the extent that al-Qaeda's capacities have been lessened in Iraq -- and they have been significantly lessened -- I do believe that makes America safer."

What hasn't much changed is the partisan debate over Iraq, which as Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) lamented, remains resistant even to established facts. Republicans tended to follow Sen. John McCain yesterday in arguing that "success is within reach" and that American goals can be achieved "perhaps sooner than many imagine." Democrats, including presidential candidates Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mr. Obama, remain locked within the "this war is lost" prism the party adopted a year ago. Yesterday Ms. Clinton, Mr. Obama and others chose to focus on the costs of the war -- whether Iraq was spending too little of its own money, and whether U.S. resources would be better dedicated to Afghanistan. Those are fair questions, but they are far different from Ms. Clinton's argument last September that accepting that the surge had made progress "would require a willing suspension of disbelief."

What also hasn't changed is the sobering but firm bottom line the two envoys offer -- one that neither party wants to hear. While "progress is real," as Mr. Crocker put it, it is also "fragile" and "reversible," as Gen. Petraeus said. That's why Gen. Petraeus is recommending -- correctly, in our view -- that troop withdrawals be suspended after the five surge brigades are withdrawn and that further reductions be based on conditions in Iraq.

Contrary to Mr. McCain's suggestion, success will require a prolonged commitment, and even then it will not be guaranteed. But the general and the ambassador both argued that such a commitment is justified. Even with all the travails of the past five years, "Iraqis, Americans and the world ultimately will judge us far more on the basis of what will happen than what has happened," said Mr. Crocker. And an early or unconditional withdrawal would, as he noted, invite disaster "with devastating consequences for the region and the world."

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