Commentary Magazine


The Truth Will Out

We can now declare it official: the general perception of the Iraq war is changing, including among the mainstream media.

Yesterday, the Washington Post ran an editorial that began:

The evidence is now overwhelming that the “surge” of U.S. military forces in Iraq this year has been, in purely military terms, a remarkable success. By every metric used to measure the war—total attacks, U.S. casualties, Iraqi casualties, suicide bombings, roadside bombs—there has been an enormous improvement since January. U.S. commanders report that al Qaeda has been cleared from large areas it once controlled and that its remaining forces in Iraq are reeling. Markets in Baghdad are reopening, and the curfew is being eased; the huge refugee flow out of the country has begun to reverse itself. Credit for these achievements belongs in large part to U.S. soldiers in Iraq, who took on a tremendously challenging new counterterrorism strategy and made it work; to Gen. David H. Petraeus, the architect of that strategy; and to President Bush, for making the decision to launch the surge against the advice of most of Congress and the country’s foreign policy elite.

On the front page of today’s New York Times, we read this:

The American military said Sunday that the weekly number of attacks in Iraq had fallen to the lowest level since just before the February 2006 bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra, an event commonly used as a benchmark for the country’s worst spasm of bloodletting after the American invasion nearly five years ago. Data released at a news conference in Baghdad showed that attacks had declined to the lowest level since January 2006. It is the third week in a row that attacks have been at this reduced level. The statistics on attack trends have long been a standard measure that the American military has used to assess violence in Iraq. Because the data have been gathered for years and are deemed generally reliable they allow analysts to identify trends…. “These trends are stunning in military terms and beyond the predictions of most proponents of the surge last winter,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, referring to President Bush’s troop reinforcement plan. “Nobody knows if the trends are durable in the absence of national reconciliation and in the face of major U.S. troop drawdowns in 2008.”

And Newsweek’s foreign correspondent Rod Nordland reports:

For someone who has returned periodically to Baghdad during these past four and a half years of war, there has been one constant: it only gets worse. The faces change, the units rotate, the victims vary, but it has always gotten worse…. For the first time, however, returning to Baghdad after an absence of four months, I can actually say that things do seem to have gotten better, and in ways that may even be durable…. Al Qaeda in Iraq is starting to look like a spent force, especially in Baghdad. The civil war is in the midst of a huge, though nervous, pause. Most Shiite militias are honoring a truce. Iran appears to have stopped shipping deadly arms to Iraqi militants. The indigenous Sunni insurgency has declared for the Americans across broad swaths of the country, especially in the capital. Emerging from our bunkers into the Red Zone, I see the results everywhere.

Each of these stories has important caveats: it’s far too early to celebrate, things can still get worse, Iraq is still a violent and fragile society, and the political opportunity created by the surge has yet to be taken advantage of by Iraq’s central government as eventually it must be if the country is to become stable. Nevertheless, it’s not too early to say that the military success in Iraq has the dimensions of a sea-change, and that, in turn, is having positive, radiating effects, as Max Boot noted earlier today.

What lessons can we draw from what we have seen during this remarkable year?

First, the changes in our military strategy clearly were necessary and should have come sooner. Second, President Bush deserves credit for having endorsed the surge in the face of ferocious opposition from Democrats and deep skepticism from Republicans. The President was almost alone in taking his stand—one now vindicated by events. Third, those who months ago declared that the surge was a failure and that Iraq was irredeemably lost were wrong and in some cases reckless in what they said. Fourth, change—sometimes for good and sometimes for ill—can happen faster than we think. Fifth, what we are seeing unfold in Iraq, under the leadership of General David Petraeus and his team, may well rank as among the most extraordinary military turnabouts in our history. The U.S. military, given the right strategy, is performing tasks that were thought to be nearly impossible. And sixth, the MSM, which has been skeptical (for some good reasons) about reporting good news from Iraq, is now doing just that, and it deserves credit for doing so.

It will be interesting to see if public opinion shifts in light of these developments. My sense is that the country remains deeply weary of the war, which will never be popular, and that there will be a considerable lag time before public opinion shifts in any significant way, if at all. But if progress continues the public will probably, with reservations, stick with the war until we achieve a decent outcome.

The other effect of the progress in Iraq is that it may not be nearly as potent a political weapon for Democrats as they thought six months ago. The facts on the ground have changed dramatically—and so may the politics of the war. Leading Democrats massively have mishandled their approach to this conflict. Almost every week, it seems, they position themselves as champions of a premature withdrawal, despite the awful geopolitical and human cost that would follow in its wake. These Democrats speak as if the events of the last year never happened. But blessedly they have—and more and more people realize they have. Even in Iraq, the truth will out.

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