The mixed report on the progress of the Iraq situation coming out of the White House this week has been reviewed by both supporters and critics of the President’s policy with too general a perspective. Detractors have been quick to seize on the eight of eighteen grades that the Iraqi government has been found making unsatisfactory progress in. The White House and its advocates have fixed on the eight satisfactory grades. But an objective observation finds a definite divide in the report that again underscores the point this blog and other defense analysts have noted – that in Iraq, there is a distinct party that is now making the grade and a distinct party that is failing.
The US military and the sectarian groups it has coaxed to join in its security efforts are passing the grade. The Surge, while not entirely successful, has begun to isolate the greatest threat to current objectives for stability – al-Qaeda’s coalition. It has done this tactically, by securing neighborhoods with an enduring presence and by changing the mission objective from clearing the enemy to fixing, surrounding and eliminating it. And it has done this strategically, by enabling the ire of Nationalist militias against the al-Qaeda interlopers who endanger their own ploys for control. In the once-lethal Anbar province, in the south and in the areas around Mosul, regions that were once meat-grinders for Americans now have local militias striving to drive out al-Qaeda. This is progress. It is not final, nor will it endure without real reconciliation, but it is real. It should be appreciated.
Conversely, the Iraqi government has failed. While the bodies of American soldiers and their Iraqi comrades provide the scar tissue, the infectious political factionalism is still being allowed to fester. Giving militias more ability to control their neighborhoods makes them better enemies to al-Qaeda, not better allies of a unity government. The measures of true reconciliation and power sharing – provincial rule; even-handed enforcement of the law; oil revenue sharing; the reverse of de-Baathification – all are stalled and no one with power in Baghdad has their shoulder to the wheel to force them to move. There is no incentive for them. The common people throughout Iraq want better lives; the politicians in Baghdad want to fire up their base for what most see as an inevitable all-out civil war.
One grade on the checklist, militia disarmament, seems ludicrous in its inclusion. Is the Iraq government really expected to disarm militias? How can this be when the US is actively arming the overtly sectarian Sunni militias while by extension arming the Shiites who dominate the legitimate security force structure? The notion is absurd – it asks the Iraqis to take away the very guns we are giving the militias. Then again, absurdity never got in the way of a war: just today a significant assault intended to disarm Shiite militias with likely connections with Iran enflamed public hatred and disgust of America’s forces.
But many of the “benchmarks” are not absurd. They are clear and concrete measures necessary to achieving unity. The problem with them is, as we’ve observed consistently, that no one is advocating or acting on them with the same sense of duty and sacrifice as they are the military aspects of the Iraq strategy. The White House has sent a sustained, innovative and forceful troop presence into the conflict, but not a diplomatic presence. It has allowed commanders to sit down with former enemies in the Sunni Nationalist brigades until some kind of alliance is reached, but has not demanded that the Iraqi government similarly sit down with high-level American politicians until an alliance is reached. It feels at liberty to lock entire townships like Baqouba and Sadr City in a vice grip of troops, but has not locked in the only people who can truly enact an end to sectarian strife with legislation – the Iraqi parliament.
It must. There will be no enduring peace without its framework being laid now, and laid strong. In order to achieve this, the White House has to abandon its position of isolating itself from responsibility for Iraq’s political attitude and has to adopt a stance like Eisenhower when he said of the Korean conflict in ’52, “I will go to Korea”.
Go to Iraq, President Bush. If you will not send yourself, send someone with true muscle and significance, such as Vice-President Cheney or Secretary Rice. Send them to some air-conditioned complex in the heart of the Green Zone now declared “satisfactory” in its safety, lock the doors, and do not come out until legislation is drafted and enacted – until Iraq has as substantial a foundation for peace as it does for security.