Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ryan Crocker

Al Qaeda and America’s Role in the World

Today, Rear Admiral Patrick Driscoll, a spokesman for the Multi-National Force in Iraq, seemed to back away from recent remarks made by Ryan Crocker. Speaking to reporters yesterday in Najaf, the American ambassador summarized the trend of developments in Iraq this way: “You are not going to hear me say that al Qaeda is defeated, but they’ve never been closer to defeat than they are now.” Today, Driscoll stated that the group remains “a very lethal threat.”

Nonetheless, the military spokesman pointed to important signs of progress. Last week, the number of attacks “decreased to the level not seen since March 2004,” Driscoll noted, and violence has fallen 70 percent since the surge began a year ago. Of course, al Qaeda can still mount attacks, and a well-timed surge of its own could determine the outcome of the American presidential campaign. Yet, as Driscoll declared, “We will not allow them to reorganize themselves.”

So if present trends hold and the Iraqi government continues to assert itself, what will be the effect on American opinion? “The national mood is retrenchment,” writes James Traub in today’s New York Times. “We recognize that our heroic designs have come to grief in Iraq. We see how very little we have accomplished in the Middle East, for all our swelling rhetoric.”

Of course, Traub has correctly gauged public sentiment in an anti-Bush, anti-idealism America. Just look at the amazing trajectory of the “change” candidate, Barack Obama. And despite the American military’s continuing success in Iraq, there is pressure on the President to end the war, bring troops home, and disengage from the world as fast as we can. Yet this is nothing new. We do this after every conflict, whether ending in victory (both World Wars), defeat (Vietnam), or stalemate (Korea). Last decade, we turned away from historic responsibilities after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yet the general sentiment that Traub describes may not be as long-lasting as many assume. For one thing, the desire to turn inward will be undercut by the success in Iraq that Crocker and Driscoll describe. And, of course, the world has a way of drawing Americans back into involvement in its affairs. We can solve some of its problems peacefully, but others are not capable of amicable resolution. As Madeleine Albright once said, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation.”

It is now up to President Bush to continue to remind the American people that we, whether we want to assume the role or not, remain the only guarantor of the international system. With his Knesset speech he redirected the national conversation in the presidential campaign. Now he can take this discussion and put it into the broader context.

Today, Rear Admiral Patrick Driscoll, a spokesman for the Multi-National Force in Iraq, seemed to back away from recent remarks made by Ryan Crocker. Speaking to reporters yesterday in Najaf, the American ambassador summarized the trend of developments in Iraq this way: “You are not going to hear me say that al Qaeda is defeated, but they’ve never been closer to defeat than they are now.” Today, Driscoll stated that the group remains “a very lethal threat.”

Nonetheless, the military spokesman pointed to important signs of progress. Last week, the number of attacks “decreased to the level not seen since March 2004,” Driscoll noted, and violence has fallen 70 percent since the surge began a year ago. Of course, al Qaeda can still mount attacks, and a well-timed surge of its own could determine the outcome of the American presidential campaign. Yet, as Driscoll declared, “We will not allow them to reorganize themselves.”

So if present trends hold and the Iraqi government continues to assert itself, what will be the effect on American opinion? “The national mood is retrenchment,” writes James Traub in today’s New York Times. “We recognize that our heroic designs have come to grief in Iraq. We see how very little we have accomplished in the Middle East, for all our swelling rhetoric.”

Of course, Traub has correctly gauged public sentiment in an anti-Bush, anti-idealism America. Just look at the amazing trajectory of the “change” candidate, Barack Obama. And despite the American military’s continuing success in Iraq, there is pressure on the President to end the war, bring troops home, and disengage from the world as fast as we can. Yet this is nothing new. We do this after every conflict, whether ending in victory (both World Wars), defeat (Vietnam), or stalemate (Korea). Last decade, we turned away from historic responsibilities after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yet the general sentiment that Traub describes may not be as long-lasting as many assume. For one thing, the desire to turn inward will be undercut by the success in Iraq that Crocker and Driscoll describe. And, of course, the world has a way of drawing Americans back into involvement in its affairs. We can solve some of its problems peacefully, but others are not capable of amicable resolution. As Madeleine Albright once said, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation.”

It is now up to President Bush to continue to remind the American people that we, whether we want to assume the role or not, remain the only guarantor of the international system. With his Knesset speech he redirected the national conversation in the presidential campaign. Now he can take this discussion and put it into the broader context.

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“It’s Hard To Say No”

In today’s Los Angeles Times, Mahdi Army commander Abu Baqr cops to getting weapons from Iran to use against Americans.

He still hates Iran. But now, he said, he accepts its weapons to fight the U.S. military, figuring he can deal with his distaste for the Iranians later. So he takes bombs that can rip a hole in a U.S. tank and rockets that can pound Baghdad’s Green Zone without apology or regret.

“I think that the Iranians are more dangerous than the Americans. I hate them and I don’t trust them,” he said in an interview over soft drinks. But the militia has limited resources, he said, and “therefore, when somebody gives you or offers help, it’s hard to say no.”

He laughed: “If it came from Israel, we would use it.”

This supports what the U.S. has been saying for a long time: Iran is arming Iraqis who kill Americans. When General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker testified on Capitol Hill last month, General Petraeus engaged in the following exchange with Joe Lieberman:

LIEBERMAN: Is it fair to say that the Iranian-backed special groups in Iraq are responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands – excuse me – hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians?

PETRAEUS: It certainly is. I do believe that is correct.

Yet, in an interview shortly after the testimony, when ABC News asked Ryan Crocker if Americans were in a “proxy war” with Iran, Crocker responded, “It may be that the Iranians see it in that light, we certainly do not.”

If one country decides to go to war (proxy or otherwise) with another country and the second country doesn’t acknowledge it, does that mean only one country is at war? With today’s admission from Abu Baqr, we have to admit that we’re choosing not to defend ourselves in the proxy war with Iran. Of course, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton has just announced he’s all for moving things out of the “proxy” realm altogether. It’s hard to figure out just what it will take before the U.S. decides to do something about Iran.

In today’s Los Angeles Times, Mahdi Army commander Abu Baqr cops to getting weapons from Iran to use against Americans.

He still hates Iran. But now, he said, he accepts its weapons to fight the U.S. military, figuring he can deal with his distaste for the Iranians later. So he takes bombs that can rip a hole in a U.S. tank and rockets that can pound Baghdad’s Green Zone without apology or regret.

“I think that the Iranians are more dangerous than the Americans. I hate them and I don’t trust them,” he said in an interview over soft drinks. But the militia has limited resources, he said, and “therefore, when somebody gives you or offers help, it’s hard to say no.”

He laughed: “If it came from Israel, we would use it.”

This supports what the U.S. has been saying for a long time: Iran is arming Iraqis who kill Americans. When General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker testified on Capitol Hill last month, General Petraeus engaged in the following exchange with Joe Lieberman:

LIEBERMAN: Is it fair to say that the Iranian-backed special groups in Iraq are responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands – excuse me – hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians?

PETRAEUS: It certainly is. I do believe that is correct.

Yet, in an interview shortly after the testimony, when ABC News asked Ryan Crocker if Americans were in a “proxy war” with Iran, Crocker responded, “It may be that the Iranians see it in that light, we certainly do not.”

If one country decides to go to war (proxy or otherwise) with another country and the second country doesn’t acknowledge it, does that mean only one country is at war? With today’s admission from Abu Baqr, we have to admit that we’re choosing not to defend ourselves in the proxy war with Iran. Of course, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton has just announced he’s all for moving things out of the “proxy” realm altogether. It’s hard to figure out just what it will take before the U.S. decides to do something about Iran.

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Dionne’s Willful Refusal to Listen to Petraeus and Crocker

In his latest column, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post writes about the testimonies of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker and Iraq more broadly. It’s worth examining what Dionne said.

According to Dionne,

The bottom line of the testimony this week from Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker is that even after the surge, what gains have been made in Iraq are, as Petraeus put it, “fragile and reversible.”

In fact this is not the bottom line, nor is it anything like a complete picture of what Petraeus and Crocker said. General Petraeus, in rightly saying that the gains we’ve made in Iraq are “fragile and reversible,” immediately went on to say this:

Still, security in Iraq is better than it was when Ambassador Crocker and I reported to you last September, and it is significantly better than it was 15 months ago when Iraq was on the brink of civil war and the decision was made to deploy additional forces to Iraq.

Here are the words of Ambassador Crocker:

Last September, I said that the cumulative trajectory of political, economic and diplomatic developments in Iraq was upwards, although the slope of that line was not steep. Developments over the last seven months have strengthened my sense of a positive trend. Immense challenges remain and progress is uneven and often frustrating slow, but there is progress. Sustaining that progress will require continuing U.S. resolve and commitment. What has been achieved is substantial, but it is also reversible.

Ambassador Crocker, after discussing the political progress that’s been made in recent months (pension and amnesty laws, de-Baathification, et cetera), also said this:

All of this has been done since September. These laws are not perfect and much depends on their implementation, but they are important steps.

Crocker has also spoken about the positive change in attitude among Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders in Iraq. Read More

In his latest column, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post writes about the testimonies of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker and Iraq more broadly. It’s worth examining what Dionne said.

According to Dionne,

The bottom line of the testimony this week from Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker is that even after the surge, what gains have been made in Iraq are, as Petraeus put it, “fragile and reversible.”

In fact this is not the bottom line, nor is it anything like a complete picture of what Petraeus and Crocker said. General Petraeus, in rightly saying that the gains we’ve made in Iraq are “fragile and reversible,” immediately went on to say this:

Still, security in Iraq is better than it was when Ambassador Crocker and I reported to you last September, and it is significantly better than it was 15 months ago when Iraq was on the brink of civil war and the decision was made to deploy additional forces to Iraq.

Here are the words of Ambassador Crocker:

Last September, I said that the cumulative trajectory of political, economic and diplomatic developments in Iraq was upwards, although the slope of that line was not steep. Developments over the last seven months have strengthened my sense of a positive trend. Immense challenges remain and progress is uneven and often frustrating slow, but there is progress. Sustaining that progress will require continuing U.S. resolve and commitment. What has been achieved is substantial, but it is also reversible.

Ambassador Crocker, after discussing the political progress that’s been made in recent months (pension and amnesty laws, de-Baathification, et cetera), also said this:

All of this has been done since September. These laws are not perfect and much depends on their implementation, but they are important steps.

Crocker has also spoken about the positive change in attitude among Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders in Iraq.

Iraq in 2006 was in a death spiral. That has not only been arrested; it has been reversed. Under the extraordinary leadership of Petraeus and Crocker, we have made more gains than even those of us who were advocates of the surge could have hoped for. And the gains have been on almost every front: security, political, diplomatic, and economic. Those gains, while “fragile and reversible,” are also indisputable.

In their testimonies Petraeus and Crocker painted a nuanced, sophisticated, and accurate picture of the situation in Iraq. It would be nice if the war critics did the same.

Dionne also writes:

The administration and its supporters talk incessantly about winning but offer no strategy for victory, no definition of what it would look like, no concrete steps to get us there, and no real sense of where “there” is.

This sentence is riddled with errors.

The United States in fact does have a strategy for victory, one that is fundamentally different than what came before it. The new strategy, being executed and implemented by Petraeus and Crocker, involved sending around 30,000 more troops to Iraq beginning in early 2007; giving them a different mission (one that aims at securing, living with, and winning over the local population); building on the attitudinal shift among the Iraqi population, including Sunnis, against the brutal and extremist ideology of al Qaeda in Iraq; working closely with the Iraqi government to transition the Sons of Iraq (now numbering more than 90,000) into the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) or other forms of employment; working with ISF to target “special groups” (Shia militia) that are being funded, trained, armed, and directed by Iran’s Quds Force with help from Lebanese Hezbollah; reforming the Iraqi police (which had been taken over by militias); encouraging provincial elections to be held later this year, which will give a greater voice to Sunnis who boycotted earlier elections; negotiating a status of forces agreement; helping design new procurement procedures for Iraq’s oil ministry; increasing the scope of the UN’s engagement in Iraq; and much else.

Earlier this week, then, Petraeus and Crocker laid out, in mind-numbing detail, the concrete steps we’ve taken and still need to take in order to achieve a decent outcome in Iraq. As for Dionne’s charge that there is “no real sense of where ‘there’ is”: that statement is also false. Our goal is a stable, self-governing, and peaceful Iraq, one that operates under the rule of law and is an ally of America in the war against jihadism.

None of this is a mystery; it’s been said, in one version or another, dozens of times. What we don’t know – and what we could not possibly know, given the nature of warfare — is precisely when we’ll be able to withdraw most of our combat troops. That depends, as all wars depend, on the facts on the ground, on unfolding events, on contingencies and variables that are impossible to know with certainty. But to pretend that we have “no strategy for victory, no definition of what it would look like, no concrete steps to get us there, and no real sense of where “there” is” is simply and demonstrably wrong.

Dionne argues this as well:

Supporters of the war say its opponents are locked in the past, stuck on whether or not the war was a good idea in the first place. Whether the war was right or wrong, they say, it’s time to move on and focus on the future. This has it backward. It’s the war’s backers and architects, including the president, who are trapped in the past. They are so invested in the original decision to invade Iraq that they won’t even consider whether the United States would be better off winding down this commitment, relieving our military of the war’s enormous burdens, and redirecting our foreign policy. Instead, they want to push on, hoping that something turns up. They resemble their own parody of liberal do-gooders insisting on continuing flawed and foolish programs no matter how obvious it becomes that their efforts are doing more harm than good.

This “flawed and foolish” program has produced results like these: ethno-sectarian violence decreased by nearly 90 percent and total civilian deaths and coalition deaths decreased by more than 70 percent between June 2007 and March 2008. This is only one metric of progress; there are many others that are matters of public record. But to quote Dionne’s friend Senator Joseph Lieberman, the approach of anti-war critics is to “hear no progress in Iraq, see no progress in Iraq, and most of all, speak of no progress in Iraq.” They are hermetically sealed off from accepting, let alone taking encouragement from, authentic progress. It is a stunning thing to witness.

Dionne’s column gets to a deeper issue. Ambassador Crocker said during his testimony that “almost everything about Iraq is hard.” That is certainly true – and serious mistakes by the Bush Administration in the Phase IV planning has made things far more difficult than they should have been. But the President made necessary adjustments. And no person can seriously dispute that progress has been made, and that if we continue along this path, we have a good chance of achieving a decent outcome in Iraq.

But the critics of the war seemingly don’t care; they have turned hard against it and want to wash our hands of it. On some level they must know that if we followed their counsel the odds are very good that mass death and perhaps genocide would follow; that al Qaeda in Iraq would be revivified; that jihadists would gain a historic victory against America and the West; that Iran would benefit enormously; that the Middle East would become significantly more destabilized; that America’s word would be devalued; and much else. But they are tired and weary of the war and the costs of the war. And so this war now comes down to what many others eventually do: a matter of will. Having put in place the right strategy, will we see it through to success? Jihadists will not lose their will; they are hoping and betting that we will lose ours.

The voices of weariness are understandable; the human and financial costs of this war have been enormous. But those voices are also wrong and Ambassador Crocker is right:

As monumental as the events of the last five years have been in Iraq, Iraqis, Americans, and the world ultimately will judge us far more on the basis of what will happen than what has happened. In the end, how we leave and what we leave behind will be more important than how we came.

President Bush, David Petraeus, Ryan Crocker and others, who have seen good and patriotic people succumb to the weariness, have thankfully refused their counsels of surrender. If one message came through above the others during this past week, it is that Petraeus and Crocker agree with the words of St. Paul: We ought not to become weary in doing good.

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Big News from Baghdad

ABC News’ Clarissa Ward reports that:

If you’re looking for one measure of the impact of last year’s troop surge in Iraq, look at Gen. David Petraeus as he walks through a Baghdad neighborhood, with no body armor, and no helmet. It’s been one year since the beginning of what’s known here as Operation Fardh Al Qadnoon. According to the U.S. military, violence is down 60 percent. One key to the success is reconciliation.

“A big part of the effort, over the last year, has been to determine who is reconcilable, who, literally, is willing to put down his rifle and talk, who is willing to shout, instead of shoot.” Petraeus said. I spent the day with Petraeus, touring Jihad, a predominantly Shiite area in western Baghdad. This place was formerly ravaged by sectarian violence, and militiamen wreaked havoc on the streets. In the last year, U.S. and Iraqi troops moved into the neighborhood, set up joint security stations, earned the trust of local people, and found those men willing to put down their guns and work with them. The results of the last year can be seen on the streets. A soccer team practices on the local pitch. The stalls in the market buzz with customers. I stop to talk to local residents, and ask if they feel a difference. Overwhelmingly, the answer is a resounding yes. “The situation in Jihad is certainly better than before,” a mechanic named Ali said. “Work is constant, shops are reopening, and people are coming back to their homes.” Notwithstanding significant progress, much work clearly remains. The Iraqi government has yet to capitalize on the relative peace and improve the local infrastructure. Sewage and trash fester in the streets. “We have very little electricity,” Ali said. The hope is, that with the passing of a budget this week, that will change. “That unlocks a substantial amount of money for the ministries of Iraq, so that they can start going about the jobs that are so essential, like patching roads that we bounced down today; over long term, improving electricity, fixing water systems, sewer systems,” Petraeus said. Normally very guarded in his assessments of the surge, Petraeus now expresses cautious optimism.

“I have to tell you that, having been here for a number of years, this is very encouraging, actually. I mean, this is, this is potentially a big moment.” he said.

A potentially big moment indeed. We are now seeing extraordinary security gains from the last year translate into both political reconciliation and legislative progress. Within the last week the Iraqi parliament passed key laws having to do with provincial elections (the law devolves power to the local level in a decentralization system that is groundbreaking for the region), the distribution of resources, and amnesty. And those laws follow ones passed in recent months having to do with pensions, investment, and de-Ba’athification.

American Ambassador Ryan Crocker told Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard that “the whole motivating factor” beyond the legislation was “reconciliation, not retribution.” This is “remarkably different” from six months ago, according to the widely respected, straight-talking Crocker.

Progress in Iraq means life is getting progressively more difficult for Democrats and their two presidential front-runners, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Having strongly opposed the surge, Obama and Clinton have been forced by events to concede that security progress has been made. But until now they have insisted that the surge is a failure because we’re not seeing political progress. That claim is now being shattered.

Soon Obama and Clinton will have no argument left to justify their position on Iraq. It will become increasingly clear that they are committed to leaving Iraq simply because they are committed to leaving Iraq, regardless of the awful consequences that would follow. It is an amazing thing to witness: two leading presidential candidates who are committed to engineering an American retreat, which would lead to an American defeat, despite the progress we are making on every conceivable front.

At the end of the day, this position will hurt Democrats badly, because their position will hurt America badly.

ABC News’ Clarissa Ward reports that:

If you’re looking for one measure of the impact of last year’s troop surge in Iraq, look at Gen. David Petraeus as he walks through a Baghdad neighborhood, with no body armor, and no helmet. It’s been one year since the beginning of what’s known here as Operation Fardh Al Qadnoon. According to the U.S. military, violence is down 60 percent. One key to the success is reconciliation.

“A big part of the effort, over the last year, has been to determine who is reconcilable, who, literally, is willing to put down his rifle and talk, who is willing to shout, instead of shoot.” Petraeus said. I spent the day with Petraeus, touring Jihad, a predominantly Shiite area in western Baghdad. This place was formerly ravaged by sectarian violence, and militiamen wreaked havoc on the streets. In the last year, U.S. and Iraqi troops moved into the neighborhood, set up joint security stations, earned the trust of local people, and found those men willing to put down their guns and work with them. The results of the last year can be seen on the streets. A soccer team practices on the local pitch. The stalls in the market buzz with customers. I stop to talk to local residents, and ask if they feel a difference. Overwhelmingly, the answer is a resounding yes. “The situation in Jihad is certainly better than before,” a mechanic named Ali said. “Work is constant, shops are reopening, and people are coming back to their homes.” Notwithstanding significant progress, much work clearly remains. The Iraqi government has yet to capitalize on the relative peace and improve the local infrastructure. Sewage and trash fester in the streets. “We have very little electricity,” Ali said. The hope is, that with the passing of a budget this week, that will change. “That unlocks a substantial amount of money for the ministries of Iraq, so that they can start going about the jobs that are so essential, like patching roads that we bounced down today; over long term, improving electricity, fixing water systems, sewer systems,” Petraeus said. Normally very guarded in his assessments of the surge, Petraeus now expresses cautious optimism.

“I have to tell you that, having been here for a number of years, this is very encouraging, actually. I mean, this is, this is potentially a big moment.” he said.

A potentially big moment indeed. We are now seeing extraordinary security gains from the last year translate into both political reconciliation and legislative progress. Within the last week the Iraqi parliament passed key laws having to do with provincial elections (the law devolves power to the local level in a decentralization system that is groundbreaking for the region), the distribution of resources, and amnesty. And those laws follow ones passed in recent months having to do with pensions, investment, and de-Ba’athification.

American Ambassador Ryan Crocker told Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard that “the whole motivating factor” beyond the legislation was “reconciliation, not retribution.” This is “remarkably different” from six months ago, according to the widely respected, straight-talking Crocker.

Progress in Iraq means life is getting progressively more difficult for Democrats and their two presidential front-runners, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Having strongly opposed the surge, Obama and Clinton have been forced by events to concede that security progress has been made. But until now they have insisted that the surge is a failure because we’re not seeing political progress. That claim is now being shattered.

Soon Obama and Clinton will have no argument left to justify their position on Iraq. It will become increasingly clear that they are committed to leaving Iraq simply because they are committed to leaving Iraq, regardless of the awful consequences that would follow. It is an amazing thing to witness: two leading presidential candidates who are committed to engineering an American retreat, which would lead to an American defeat, despite the progress we are making on every conceivable front.

At the end of the day, this position will hurt Democrats badly, because their position will hurt America badly.

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Reconciliation?

According to Reuters,

Reconciliation between Iraq’s divided communities is gaining momentum at a national level, especially in parliament where lawmakers are working “intensively”, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq said on Thursday. But Ryan Crocker said he was not about to predict that the dark days of 2006 and early 2007, when the country teetered on the brink of all-out sectarian civil war, were over. “Intense bitterness remains and there are a lot of challenges that are going to have to be carefully … managed to ensure there is no return because to be frank, all of the good things that have been accomplished during this past year could be reversed,” Crocker said in an interview with Reuters. He said much had been made possible on national reconciliation in the past few months by sharp plunges in violence… Iraq’s parliament — frequently chastised by U.S. officials and lawmakers last year for inaction — approved a landmark bill this month that allows former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party to rejoin the government and the military… Asked if he was seeing a certain degree of momentum on national reconciliation, Crocker said: “I do. And with violence down, things previously impossible become possible…” Crocker said he was “hearing a new tone” on provincial elections, adding all parties wanted to hold them this year, an event he said could be “hugely important” in stabilising Iraq.

On the security side, we recently learned from Lt. General Raymond Odierno that ethno-sectarian attacks/deaths in Baghdad security districts decreased more than 90 percent from January to December 2007. Monthly attack levels in Iraq have decreased 60 percent since June 2007 and are now at the same levels as early 2005 and some points in 2004. Coalition forces also found and cleared more than 6,900 weapons caches in 2007, well over twice the amount (2,662) cleared in 2006. Iraq’s Security Forces grew by more than 106,000 personnel in 2007 and now stand at over 567,000. According to Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, “By year’s end, some 140 battalions of Army, police, national police, and special operations units were in the fight. About 122 of those 140 battalions are capable of taking the lead in conducting operations.” It’s worth noting, too, that our military estimates that more than 90 percent of suicide bombers in Iraq are foreign terrorists.

All of this progress needs to be set in context. Earlier this week General David Petraeus, the commanding general in Iraq, told NBC, “We think we won’t know that we’ve reached a turning point until we’re six months past it,” Petraeus said. “We have repeatedly said that there [are] no lights at the end of the tunnel that we’re seeing.”

General Petraeus is surely correct in counseling caution. When he returned to Iraq in 2006, he remarked that it was the most challenging situation he faced in more than 30 years in the military. Iraq remains, even now, a fragile and fractured nation. Nevertheless, the precipitous drop in ethno-sectarian attacks/deaths in Baghdad, Iraq’s capital and the second-largest city in the Arab world (after Cairo), is a staggering achievement. And the reconciliation effort, which started from the ground up, seems to be expanding to the central government.

This doesn’t mean the war has been won. As Ambassador Crocker points out, gains that have been made can be reversed – and if we withdraw our troops too quickly, Iraq would begin cracking apart. But what is unfolding in Iraq demonstrates that progress is continuing to be made on almost every front. We now have in place the right strategy and the right man to oversee it. What once seemed impossible – a decent outcome in Iraq – is now within reach.

According to Reuters,

Reconciliation between Iraq’s divided communities is gaining momentum at a national level, especially in parliament where lawmakers are working “intensively”, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq said on Thursday. But Ryan Crocker said he was not about to predict that the dark days of 2006 and early 2007, when the country teetered on the brink of all-out sectarian civil war, were over. “Intense bitterness remains and there are a lot of challenges that are going to have to be carefully … managed to ensure there is no return because to be frank, all of the good things that have been accomplished during this past year could be reversed,” Crocker said in an interview with Reuters. He said much had been made possible on national reconciliation in the past few months by sharp plunges in violence… Iraq’s parliament — frequently chastised by U.S. officials and lawmakers last year for inaction — approved a landmark bill this month that allows former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party to rejoin the government and the military… Asked if he was seeing a certain degree of momentum on national reconciliation, Crocker said: “I do. And with violence down, things previously impossible become possible…” Crocker said he was “hearing a new tone” on provincial elections, adding all parties wanted to hold them this year, an event he said could be “hugely important” in stabilising Iraq.

On the security side, we recently learned from Lt. General Raymond Odierno that ethno-sectarian attacks/deaths in Baghdad security districts decreased more than 90 percent from January to December 2007. Monthly attack levels in Iraq have decreased 60 percent since June 2007 and are now at the same levels as early 2005 and some points in 2004. Coalition forces also found and cleared more than 6,900 weapons caches in 2007, well over twice the amount (2,662) cleared in 2006. Iraq’s Security Forces grew by more than 106,000 personnel in 2007 and now stand at over 567,000. According to Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, “By year’s end, some 140 battalions of Army, police, national police, and special operations units were in the fight. About 122 of those 140 battalions are capable of taking the lead in conducting operations.” It’s worth noting, too, that our military estimates that more than 90 percent of suicide bombers in Iraq are foreign terrorists.

All of this progress needs to be set in context. Earlier this week General David Petraeus, the commanding general in Iraq, told NBC, “We think we won’t know that we’ve reached a turning point until we’re six months past it,” Petraeus said. “We have repeatedly said that there [are] no lights at the end of the tunnel that we’re seeing.”

General Petraeus is surely correct in counseling caution. When he returned to Iraq in 2006, he remarked that it was the most challenging situation he faced in more than 30 years in the military. Iraq remains, even now, a fragile and fractured nation. Nevertheless, the precipitous drop in ethno-sectarian attacks/deaths in Baghdad, Iraq’s capital and the second-largest city in the Arab world (after Cairo), is a staggering achievement. And the reconciliation effort, which started from the ground up, seems to be expanding to the central government.

This doesn’t mean the war has been won. As Ambassador Crocker points out, gains that have been made can be reversed – and if we withdraw our troops too quickly, Iraq would begin cracking apart. But what is unfolding in Iraq demonstrates that progress is continuing to be made on almost every front. We now have in place the right strategy and the right man to oversee it. What once seemed impossible – a decent outcome in Iraq – is now within reach.

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A Race to the Bottom

On Saturday the Iraqi parliament passed the “Accountability and Justice Law,” which is intended to make it easier for former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party to return to civil service jobs. While the details of the law need to be studied carefully, this appears to be precisely the kind of political reconciliation Democrats have been calling for, and its passage undermines one of their chief arguments against pursuing the conflict in Iraq to a favorable conclusion: the surge, while militarily effective, must be deemed a failure because we have witnessed no political progress.

This view has been contradicted by the “bottom up” reconciliation that has been taking place throughout most of 2007. Ryan Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq, has said that reconciliation is more than national legislation. It’s also what we’re seeing in the provinces around Iraq – and there we are seeing more cross-sectarian political activity. Nevertheless, it’s true that the central government has been far too inflexible and unyielding when it comes to taking steps to unify Iraq. Yet even that appears to be changing. As Secretary Rice said yesterday, “When I hear that the surge was to give the Iraqi people a chance for political reconciliation, I say that’s absolutely right. And while it hasn’t always moved as fast as some of us sitting in Washington would like, it has certainly moved.”

What we are seeing in Iraq is a struggling Arab democracy—the words were once a contradiction—evolve and grow. And while that evolution has been slow and imperfect, as was America’s, it is something we should be encouraged by and build on.

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On Saturday the Iraqi parliament passed the “Accountability and Justice Law,” which is intended to make it easier for former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party to return to civil service jobs. While the details of the law need to be studied carefully, this appears to be precisely the kind of political reconciliation Democrats have been calling for, and its passage undermines one of their chief arguments against pursuing the conflict in Iraq to a favorable conclusion: the surge, while militarily effective, must be deemed a failure because we have witnessed no political progress.

This view has been contradicted by the “bottom up” reconciliation that has been taking place throughout most of 2007. Ryan Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq, has said that reconciliation is more than national legislation. It’s also what we’re seeing in the provinces around Iraq – and there we are seeing more cross-sectarian political activity. Nevertheless, it’s true that the central government has been far too inflexible and unyielding when it comes to taking steps to unify Iraq. Yet even that appears to be changing. As Secretary Rice said yesterday, “When I hear that the surge was to give the Iraqi people a chance for political reconciliation, I say that’s absolutely right. And while it hasn’t always moved as fast as some of us sitting in Washington would like, it has certainly moved.”

What we are seeing in Iraq is a struggling Arab democracy—the words were once a contradiction—evolve and grow. And while that evolution has been slow and imperfect, as was America’s, it is something we should be encouraged by and build on.

The top three Democratic contenders for President, however, see things quite differently. During last night’s debate in Las Vegas, they were asked about Iraq. One might have hoped that the events of the last year and of the last week might lead them to reassess their unbending commitment to prematurely withdraw American troops from Iraq. One might have hoped that new evidence would lead them to draw new conclusions and draw up new plans.

Not a chance.

Last night Senator Obama proudly declared, “I have put forward a plan that will get our troops out by the end of 2009.” He added, “My first job as president of the United States is going to be to call in the Joint Chiefs of Staff and say, you’ve got a new mission, and that is to responsibly, carefully but deliberately start to phase out our involvement there, and to make sure that we are putting the onus on the Iraqi government to come together and do what they need to do to arrive at peace… I have been very specific in saying that we will not have permanent bases there—I will end the war as we understand it in combat missions.”

Senator Clinton put it this way: “I’m on record as saying exactly that as soon as I become president, we will start withdrawing within 60 days. We will move as carefully and responsibly as we can, one to two brigades a month, I believe, and we’ll have nearly all the troops out by the end of the year, I hope.”

And John Edwards, never to be outdone when it comes to embracing an irresponsible policy, said this: “I think I’ve actually, among the three of us, been the most aggressive and said that I will have all combat troops out in the first year that I’m president of the United States. I will end combat missions and while I’m president, there will be no permanent military bases in Iraq.”

No combat troops, no permanent bases, no nothing. The Democratic position seems to be that we will simply wipe our hands of this unpopular war, come what may.

What is completely missing from the Democratic stance is the importance, and even the possibility, of a decent outcome in Iraq. One increasingly gets the sense that they view progress in Iraq as an annoyance, something that may prove to be an obstacle to their efforts. More and more Obama, Clinton, Edwards and their allies on Capitol Hill appear as if they are characters in the movie Ground Hog Day. Like Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors, they find themselves stuck in time. But Democrats find themselves stuck not on a particular day but in a particular year, 2006—and they are seemingly unable or unwilling to process the progress we have seen in 2007. They cannot even entertain the possibility that a nation that was in a death spiral is not being reconstituted.

Obama, Clinton, and Edwards are in a state of denial—and their apparently willingness, and even eagerness, to undermine all we have achieved in Iraq in order to maintain an ideological commitment is intellectually dishonest and reckless. If a Democrat wins in November, the best we can hope for is that the positions they are espousing now are merely cynical and not serious. We should be able to hope for more.

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Ryan Crocker

I just left an on-the-record conference call in which Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, briefed some stateside pundits on how the situation looks at the end of the year. Not surprisingly, he said, that “2007 ends in a considerably better place than it began” and that he is “feeling a lot more encouraged than when I got here last March.” The key challenge now, of course, is to translate security progress into more political progress.

Crocker offered some encouraging signs of a “positive spiral engendered by security improvements,” including the fact that Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Vice President, recently met with Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the senior Shiite cleric, and that there were recently meetings between Sunni sheikhs from Anbar Province and Shiite sheikhs from Karbala Province. Those kinds of cross-sectarian meetings would not have happened a year ago.

He also pointed out that some of the Concerned Local Citizens groups in mixed parts of Baghdad that have taken up arms against extremists are composed of both Shiites and Sunnis. (The majority, however, are still exclusively Sunni, which makes sense, because they are operating in Sunni neighborhoods.)

Another welcome sign is that the central government is spending more of its budget and that the money is going out to Sunni and Shiite provinces alike “in a manner perceived as equitable.” In a related development, the Baghdad government recently agreed to pay pensions to tens of thousands of people who had been denied them because of their association with the Baathist regime. Crocker suggested this means that “they are paying for reconciliation.”

Trying to pass reconciliation legislation has, Crocker admitted, “been a slow, painful process.” Some of the bills, including one reversing previous de-Baathification decrees and another offering limited amnesty to some of those who have fought against coalition and Iraqi forces since 2003, are still winding their way through the legislative process. “They are making some progress,” he said. “They are going to have to make more.” He did add that the problem doesn’t seem to be Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki: “He’s a committed, dedicated person of great personal courage.”

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I just left an on-the-record conference call in which Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, briefed some stateside pundits on how the situation looks at the end of the year. Not surprisingly, he said, that “2007 ends in a considerably better place than it began” and that he is “feeling a lot more encouraged than when I got here last March.” The key challenge now, of course, is to translate security progress into more political progress.

Crocker offered some encouraging signs of a “positive spiral engendered by security improvements,” including the fact that Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Vice President, recently met with Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the senior Shiite cleric, and that there were recently meetings between Sunni sheikhs from Anbar Province and Shiite sheikhs from Karbala Province. Those kinds of cross-sectarian meetings would not have happened a year ago.

He also pointed out that some of the Concerned Local Citizens groups in mixed parts of Baghdad that have taken up arms against extremists are composed of both Shiites and Sunnis. (The majority, however, are still exclusively Sunni, which makes sense, because they are operating in Sunni neighborhoods.)

Another welcome sign is that the central government is spending more of its budget and that the money is going out to Sunni and Shiite provinces alike “in a manner perceived as equitable.” In a related development, the Baghdad government recently agreed to pay pensions to tens of thousands of people who had been denied them because of their association with the Baathist regime. Crocker suggested this means that “they are paying for reconciliation.”

Trying to pass reconciliation legislation has, Crocker admitted, “been a slow, painful process.” Some of the bills, including one reversing previous de-Baathification decrees and another offering limited amnesty to some of those who have fought against coalition and Iraqi forces since 2003, are still winding their way through the legislative process. “They are making some progress,” he said. “They are going to have to make more.” He did add that the problem doesn’t seem to be Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki: “He’s a committed, dedicated person of great personal courage.”

A wild card in all this remains the role of Iraq’s neighbors, particularly Syria and Iran, which have long been stoking the conflict. There have been mixed reports on whether the Iranians and Syrians have tamped down their efforts to destabilize Iraq, with conflicting claims being heard from the Pentagon and State Department.

Crocker was careful to take a middle-of-the-road position, saying, “I’m pretty modest about what I claim to know about Iran.” Crocker continued: “It’s unclear to me how much of what we’ve seen in throttling back of extremist militia activity represents an Iranian effort, how much of it is Sadrist leaders recognizing where good politics lie…. I’m making no assumptions. I’m handing out no certificates of good behavior.” This puts him at odds, seemingly, with some State Department colleagues back in Washington, who have been more effusive in attesting to Iran’s supposed change of behavior.

As for Syria, he said, there are “some indications of lessening numbers of foreign fighters slash suicide bombers coming across the border, but as far as we can tell that still remains the primary conduit for people who do really nasty things out here.”

He pointed out another aspect of Iraq’s foreign relations that hasn’t received the attention it deserves: the unwillingness of Arab countries to send ambassadors back to Baghdad despite the improving security situation. “It is past time,” Crocker said, “for Arab states to step up and be a positive, active influence in Iraq.” At the moment, they prefer to complain from the sidelines about Iranian influence without trying to get into the game themselves.

Crocker ended by saying that Iraqis no longer fear getting abandoned by the United States: “At the most fundamental level, there is a view that things are moving in the right direction, that security is improving, that the surge has worked, that Iraqi forces are more numerous and more capable, and therefore why on earth would we abandon a winning proposition?”

Good question. It’s one that some of the presidential candidates who are advocating a rapid drawdown of American forces should answer.

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Friedman’s Folly

Has anything sillier than this, from the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman, been written recently by a serious columnist?

Is the surge in Iraq working? That is the question that General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker will answer for us next month. I, alas, am not interested in their opinions. It is not because I don’t hold both men in very high regard. I do. But I’m still not interested in their opinions. I’m only interested in yours. Yes, you—the person reading this column.

This is a case study of a columnist trying to be provocative and merely coming across as pandering and foolish. The main point of Friedman’s column is that the “surge,” while it may be making progress, is insufficient. What matters, he argues, is politics. He sees, as the indispensable condition for American success, “a coalition of Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds who share our vision of a unified, multiparty, power-sharing, democratizing Iraq . . . [and who] are willing to forge a social contract that will allow them to maintain such an Iraq—without U.S. troops.”

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Has anything sillier than this, from the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman, been written recently by a serious columnist?

Is the surge in Iraq working? That is the question that General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker will answer for us next month. I, alas, am not interested in their opinions. It is not because I don’t hold both men in very high regard. I do. But I’m still not interested in their opinions. I’m only interested in yours. Yes, you—the person reading this column.

This is a case study of a columnist trying to be provocative and merely coming across as pandering and foolish. The main point of Friedman’s column is that the “surge,” while it may be making progress, is insufficient. What matters, he argues, is politics. He sees, as the indispensable condition for American success, “a coalition of Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds who share our vision of a unified, multiparty, power-sharing, democratizing Iraq . . . [and who] are willing to forge a social contract that will allow them to maintain such an Iraq—without U.S. troops.”

This is another way of saying what Petraeus and Crocker (and countless others) have said repeatedly: ultimately a decent outcome in Iraq depends on a political solution, not a military one. But the American military must play a key role if political reconciliation is to have any chance of success. To argue that military success has nothing to do with political progress is absurd.

Friedman states that, since “[sectarian] fires have been set, trying to unify Iraq feels like doing carpentry on a burning house.” But to extend the analogy, what Petraeus and company are trying to do is to put out the fire and create the conditions that will allow the carpenters to complete their work. We don’t know if they’ll succeed—but we know they can’t possibly succeed so long as the fire rages.

Petraeus and Crocker have had more success than virtually anyone would have hoped for at the beginning of the year. The evidence of progress on the security side is indisputable. Clearly, we have a long way to go, and the central government in Iraq has been a major disappointment thus far. But to state that what Petraeus and Crocker have to say in September is of no interest is intellectually unserious and even dishonest. Tom Friedman may not believe that Petraeus and Crocker can alter events in Iraq—we shall see—but he will surely care what they say. And pretending that the opinion of a hairstylist in Manhattan or a high school senior in Seattle should carry more weight than the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq is risible.

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Dangerous Dialogue

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, spent a couple of hours gabbing with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, on Monday. According to the prevailing political wisdom in Washington—and within large sectors of the newly-chastened Bush administration itself—this kind of “dialogue” will somehow transform the situation in Iraq for the better. It will also, the theory runs, lead gradually to the resolution of our other major differences with Iran, such as its implacable pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The prevailing wisdom in Tehran is rather different. There, it seems, such talks merely provide another opportunity to humiliate the United States and underline our inability to stop the Iranian quest for regional dominance. In case anyone didn’t get the memo, the Iranian government charged three Iranian-Americans with spying the day after this grand dialogue convened in Baghdad. As noted by the Washington Post, “The three individuals charged are prominent Washington scholar Haleh Esfandiari, social scientist Kian Tajbakhsh of the New York-based Open Society Institute, and correspondent Parnaz Azima of U.S.-funded Radio Farda.”

None of them, needless to say, is an actual spy. But grabbing hostages has by now become a well-entrenched tradition in Iran—one proven to work over the years in bringing the West to its knees, whether through the seizure of the U.S. Embassy personnel in 1979, numerous Westerners in Lebanon in the 1980’s, or the more recent detention of British sailors in the Persian Gulf.

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The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, spent a couple of hours gabbing with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, on Monday. According to the prevailing political wisdom in Washington—and within large sectors of the newly-chastened Bush administration itself—this kind of “dialogue” will somehow transform the situation in Iraq for the better. It will also, the theory runs, lead gradually to the resolution of our other major differences with Iran, such as its implacable pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The prevailing wisdom in Tehran is rather different. There, it seems, such talks merely provide another opportunity to humiliate the United States and underline our inability to stop the Iranian quest for regional dominance. In case anyone didn’t get the memo, the Iranian government charged three Iranian-Americans with spying the day after this grand dialogue convened in Baghdad. As noted by the Washington Post, “The three individuals charged are prominent Washington scholar Haleh Esfandiari, social scientist Kian Tajbakhsh of the New York-based Open Society Institute, and correspondent Parnaz Azima of U.S.-funded Radio Farda.”

None of them, needless to say, is an actual spy. But grabbing hostages has by now become a well-entrenched tradition in Iran—one proven to work over the years in bringing the West to its knees, whether through the seizure of the U.S. Embassy personnel in 1979, numerous Westerners in Lebanon in the 1980’s, or the more recent detention of British sailors in the Persian Gulf.

To make this “up yours” a little more explicit, Ali Larijani, the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator, told the world’s press that he “rejected the possibility of Iran suspending its uranium enrichment program.” This, coming on the eve of talks between Larijani and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, will hardly improve the atmosphere for negotiations.

The only people who could possibly be surprised by the Iranian attitude are the architects of the Iraq Study Group report and other conveyors of wishful thinking in Washington. Naturally, their response will be that we should make even more concessions to Iran to overcome their “suspicions” about American behavior. What this rather naïve reasoning ignores are the big benefits that many in the Iranian leadership, especially in the Revolutionary Guard Corps, derive from the continuing Iranian policy of isolation and hostility. Not only does enmity with the West help to maintain their justification for a theocratic dictatorship, but, as Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explains in this interview, it also helps well-connected Iranians to profit by looting the economy.

It takes quite an effort of will to convince oneself that the real issue between the U.S. and Iran is a lack of understanding. The reality is that the U.S. and Iran have radically divergent interests. In the case of Iraq, Iran’s interest is to foment strife that will weaken the U.S. and our democratic allies and expand its sphere of control. It is currently achieving that goal. Why would it, suddenly, want to help the U.S. achieve its objectives in Iraq? Until someone can answer that question convincingly, perhaps we should hold off on any further coffee klatches with the mullahs.

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