In a speech yesterday for the Ceremonial Groundbreaking of the United States Institute of Peace, President Bush said this:
And as we’ve adopted to meet these new circumstances, there have been successes and setbacks — and we’ve learned some lessons. One lesson is that before nations under fire from terrorists can make political and economic progress, their populations need basic security.
The President is quite right. One of the fundamental mistakes the Bush administration (in which I served) made was to believe political progress and elections would have radiating and far-reaching security effects; that the Sunni insurgency would be drained of its violence and energy as insurgents increasingly took part in the political process. But it turns out that the political progress that was made — and which was an authentic expression of the longing of the Iraqi people to be free – wasn’t nearly enough. So long as basic security wasn’t provided, whatever political and economic progress was made could be quickly undone.
This important error in judgment played into other ones: the U.S. should pursue a “light footprint” approach, the insurgency was primarily a product of the American occupation (we were part of the problem and therefore a quick exit from Iraq would lead to lessening violence), nation building was passé, and decapitating Saddam’s regime should be the primary objective of the war. We placed far too much confidence in American military technology and not nearly enough planning into what it took to win an asymmetrical war. There was an understandable longing to leave Iraq as soon as possible; the problem is that this mindset led to trying to accelerate the hand-off to the Iraqis before they were ready. We kept trying to pass the baton to the Iraqis – and it kept being dropped.
What General David Petraeus long understood, and what he was finally able to execute on a large scale once he was named the commanding general in Iraq, is that the sine qua non of progress in Iraq was providing basic security. In practical terms, that meant more troops and, even more importantly, a new counter-insurgency strategy that was population-centric — meaning our troops needed to live with the Iraqis rather than retreat to Forward Basing Operations at night — and anchored in winning over the confidence of the Iraqi people. With Petraeus came a wholly new approach; his appointment signaled an enormously important strategic shift in our approach to the war. And what we have seen since then are the fruits of that change.
The very real political progress we’ve seen in Iraq this year is the result of Iraqis feeling a greater sense of security. They don’t fear, as they once did, that cities that were secured would soon be lost, forcing Iraqis to side with either Sunni insurgents or Shiite militias.
The President, to his credit, came to understand the flaws in our military strategy, even if it happened quite late in the day. The President made key personnel changes that opened the way for the surge to succeed — and which, by any objective measure, it has. In the face of gale-force political winds, President Bush endorsed what turned out to be the right strategy, when much of the public and most of the political class had given up on Iraq. And in David Petraeus he found his Grant and Ridgway. It was, in many ways, the President’s most impressive act in office. And it gives the lie to the oft-repeated claim that he is stubborn, rigid, and inflexible.
In fact, President Bush showed he had the capacity to recognize his strategy was failing and replace it with one that works. Ironically it turns out that Senator Obama, who comes across in his speech and countenance as flexible and open-minded, who has shown a disturbing unwillingness to alter his views based on new evidence and changing facts. Barack Obama is like a character in Groundhog Day; for him, it is always December 2006 in Iraq. If President Bush deserves blame for not insisting that adequate preparation was done for the Phase IV planning of the war, then he surely deserves credit for making a fundamental adjustment, one he made when he stood almost alone. And because of those changes Iraq – which under Saddam was a land of repression and a land of tears – is now redeemable.