Senior Brookings Fellows Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack gave a report today and entertained questions at a Brookings briefing on Iraq. It was the single most illuminating presentation I have witnessed on the status of Iraq and the potential way forward. Neither man can be accused of shilling for either the administration or John McCain for numerous reasons: both have been strong critics of the war and O’Hanlon opposed the war at the onset and still believes on balance it has not made us safer. I understand from Brookings that the entire transcript will be posted, but I offer some highlights below.
O’Hanlon explained that the last three months has been the “spring of the blossoming of Iraqi security forces” and Iraq is on an “impressive trajectory” although we have not yet “reached a stable end point.” He stressed that the 80% reduction in civilian violence was much better than he thought possible. He went through a detailed review of Basra, conceding that Maliki’s actions took the Americans by surprise and that in the first week things went poorly. However, by the second week two brigades were deployed from Al Anbar ( a testimony to massive improvements in Iraq security force logistics) and the mission was successful, allowing the Iraqi army and national police force to now control the streets of Basra.
Pollack echoed these observations, saying that “The headline was the emergence of Iraqi security forces.” He explained that the fundamental shift from Americans leading with Iraqis in support to Iraqis leading not just “hold” but “clear” operations is now “well underway.” He observes that sectarian divisions within the military are receding as mixed Sunni and Shia units have been successful in Basra and Mosul operations. He sees vast improvement in military leadership which “is one of the main reasons for improvement” in the security situation. He credits the military success with allowing for a “fundamental rearrangement” of Iraqi politics, observing that Maliki is now “flying high” with new found respect from Sunnis. The big picture take away, he says, it that having achieved remarkable success with major issues we now can begin to address “second and third order problems” such as insuring that military forces “stay in their lane” and do not subvert civilian leadership.
I asked O’Hanlon whether his previous criticism that Barack Obama was in denial about facts on the ground still stood. In a lengthy answer he and then Pollack avoided a partisan hit on Obama and I think revealed their true purpose: to inform the public and policy makers about the real situation in Iraq and allow Democrats to in essence climb back off the surge opposition policy limb they have crawled out on. (This is my description; they were quite tactful and even optimistic that this is a time when political leaders can reorient themselves to new facts.) Both indicated that it would be a mistake with critical provincial and national elections upcoming in 2008 and 2009 to begin an abrupt withdrawal in 2009. O’Hanlon offered that Democrats could take credit for having pressured Iraqis on a political front with the clear message that our presence would not be indefinite and that they should accept that “the good news is you may be able to leave earlier than proposed based on progress and not on defeat.”
Continuing with the answer, Pollack said that “our support is absolutely critical” in the short term and that “a massive withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2009 is not a good idea.”
O’Hanlon continued by praising McCain’s May 2008 speech that envisioned half the U.S. forces out by the end of his first term. He then said that there might be a “more optimistic” timetable which Obama could conceivably adopt whereby we would return to pre-surge levels this year, see a modest reduction in 2009 and further reductions to 50,000-70,00 troops in 2011.
The program continued with many more probing questions and insightful answers which I strongly encourage all to read when the transcript is available.
I think this presentation highlighted several things. First, facts do matter and they are readily available to anyone who cares to find them. Second, the wisdom of the war and the mismanagement of the war for a number of years needs, for the sake of the country’s national security, to be separated from what we do now. As O’Hanlon said “we are where we are.” Third, Democrats can save face and claim credit for pressuring the Iraqi government if they are inclined to depart from their defeat at all costs approach. Fourth, no one should be Pollyannaish about the success to date but a better outcome than almost anyone would be imagined is now possible. Fifth, the military success of the surge followed by the remarkable progress of the Iraqi military has now empowered Maliki as a truly national political leader. That is what we had hoped when the surge began and that is the basis by which we can achieve a decent outcome and eventually draw down our troops. Finally, I am considerably less optimistic than O’Hanlon that there is now a political window during which the Democrats can be weaned from their defeatist perspective. I fear it would be too great a shift for Obama and the Democrats who have banked on failure. I hope I am wrong and pray that this is the beginning of a reconciliation with reality.