Ross Douthat, one of the bright lights of the rising generation of young conservatives (boy, it makes me feel old to write that!), professes himself dissatisfied with my forthcoming COMMENTARY article, “How Not to Get out of Iraq.” On his Atlantic blog he pounces on my admission that “the surge might still fail in the long run if Iraqis prove incapable of reaching political compromises even in a more secure environment.”
“This is not satisfactory. . . .” he writes. “[I]f we are to continue on our current path, we need to have less talk about the dangers of the alternative military approaches, and more talk about our options on the political front.” Unless we can come up with a good political solution, Douthat suggests, we might as well pull out. “As bad as admitting defeat would be, it’s preferable to asking thousands more Americans to die for what ends up being judged a mistake.”
But the whole point of the surge is to set the conditions for political progress. We’ve already seen considerable movement at the grass-roots level. There has not been comparable political progress in Baghdad, but it’s too early to expect that. First, the surge has to create a climate in which compromise is possible. Short-cut political solutions—Douthat mentions moving up the elections or instituting a “soft partition” (the latter is an option I discuss in “How Not to Get out of Iraq”)—won’t work absent a basic level of security, which American and Iraqi forces are just now in the process of establishing. This is a long-overdue correction to the failed strategy of the past four years: putting politics before security. Douthat seems strangely enamored of that plan.
If we’d taken the right approach from the beginning and emphasized security, as any seasoned counterinsurgency strategist would counsel, we would probably be much further along than we are today. Because we made so many mistakes in the first four years of the war, any strategy that we implement now, no matter how sound, faces daunting odds. But that doesn’t mean, as Douthat implies, that we should simply throw up our hands in despair and withdraw. At least the surge gives us a reasonable chance to succeed. Any other option would be virtually certain to result in a catastrophic defeat.