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A Response to Charles Kesler

Charles Kesler is editor of one of the most intellectually impressive publications in America, the Claremont Review of Books, and he is also among the most intelligent skeptics of the Iraq war and our effort to bring democracy to that traumatized land. In his “From the Editor’s Desk” essay in the current issue of his review (Fall 2007), Kesler writes mostly about liberalism. But he also writes this:

[T]he GOP has its own looming problem. Sticking with the surge buys time but little else. What comes after the surge? The answer is the 2008 elections, which the party will lose, and deserve to lose, if it doesn’t separate itself from the administration’s stand-pat case for the war…. Conservatives have to prove that they can reason their way to an improved policy on Iraq, as on other issues. And they need to do so soon, before the primaries are over effectively in February or March.

Let me address these points in order.

Professor Kesler insists that “sticking with the surge buys time but little else.” But how does he know? One thing we can say, to the point that it is now beyond dispute even by Democrats, is that the surge bought us much more than time. It has made Iraq a far calmer and safer nation.

We learned from Lt. General Ray Odierno’s press briefing earlier this week that attack levels have been on a downward trend since June and are at their lowest levels since January; that IED attacks have been reduced by 60 percent in the last four months, with a notable decrease in lethality; and that in a change from the past, this year Iraqis celebrated Eid al-Fitr (the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan) in parks, restaurants, and streets due to decreased violence.

Col. Michael Garrett, also earlier this week, reported “measurable progress” in the Kalsu region southwest of Baghdad. Attacks have declined since March and are now at the lowest levels since the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division’s deployment thirteen months ago. And for good measure, on October 17, Sunni and Shiite leaders from the southwestern Baghdad neighborhoods of al-Jihad and al-Furat signed an important reconciliation agreement.

This doesn’t mean Iraq is a calm and safe country, nor does it mean that ultimately we will succeed. But it does mean that progress on (a) the security side and (b) bottom-up reconciliation has been astonishing, happening more quickly and spreading more widely than almost anyone thought possible at the beginning of the year. This is not a sufficient condition for success in Iraq, but it is a necessary one. The notion that the surge has bought only time is simply wrong.

Professor Kesler then asks, “What comes after the surge?” Here are some possibilities. The surge may buy time that will allow the Iraqi Security Forces to build up so they are better able to handle a host of security challenges. It may make those challenges far more manageable than they would otherwise be, meaning the chance for success will improve. And it might well allow for bottom-up, top-down, and center-out reconciliation to take place.

If Kesler had asked “What comes after the surge?” last year, one answer would have been, “The Anbar Awakening,” which is spreading far beyond Anbar, and the massive Sunni rejection of al Qaeda in Iraq. The surge didn’t create these encouraging developments, but it has assisted them mightily. It’s also worth adding that Kesler probably did not anticipate either one.

Finally, Professor Kesler urges the GOP to “separate itself from the administration’s stand-pat case for the war” and conservatives “to prove that they can reason their way to an improved policy on Iraq.”

But of course the administration does not have a “stand-pat” policy; the Petraeus strategy is a significant break with the Rumsfeld-Sanchez-Abizaid-Casey strategy that preceded it. We have, in fact, reasoned our way to an improved policy on Iraq. It has taken more time that any of us wished, but it is bearing good fruit. And now, in the wake of such substantial progress in Iraq, it would be reckless and unwise (and perhaps even un-conservative) to change.



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