A hunger for optimism
It's understandable that Americans yearn for good news from Iraq, but the current bounce is based on anecdotes, not an overall improvement
Victory in Iraq, a hardy few say, may be within reach.While everyone waits for the Petraeus report we find out that it will be written by the White House.
Brookings Institution scholars Kenneth Pollack and Michael O'Hanlon roused optimism from an unexpected quarter late last month when The New York Times published their essay, "Stability in Iraq: A War We Just Might Win." The two analysts, who said they had previously been harsh critics of U.S. war policy, described high morale among U.S. troops, a reduction in corrupt Iraqi commanders and Iraqis' growing rejection of al-Qaida-styled extremism.
A New York Times/CBS News poll last month also revealed growing positive attitudes about developments in Iraq. A growing minority of people surveyed -- 42 percent in July, up from 35 percent in May -- said invading Iraq was the right thing to do. And the number of people who say the war is going "very badly" has fallen to 35 percent, down from 45 percent earlier in the month. While a majority of Americans still think the U.S. shouldn't have invaded Iraq and think the war is going badly, the recent trend has been in the opposite direction.
But such views seem to be based more on a wistful hope than any real, significant changes in Iraqi security or society.
Anthony Cordesman, an analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, went on the same trip with O'Hanlon and Pollack, but his paper, "The Tenuous Case for Strategic Patience in Iraq," is far more subdued. "It has taken the mix of forces the United States and Iraq deployed over six months to establish a limited kind of security over half of Baghdad. The security has . . . not stopped sectarian cleansing," he said.
And the Pentagon reporter for The Washington Post, Tom Ricks, the author of "Fiasco," the authoritative book on the bungled occupation of Iraq, said flatly in Portland last week that "there are no good options at all." The United States and Iraq, he said, are "backing into a de facto partition of the country."
By the way, it was misleading for Pollack and O'Hanlon to have implied that their views had been reversed by their eight days in Iraq. Pollack has been a cheerleader for the imposition of democracy in Iraq since at least the summer following the U.S.-led invasion. As he wrote in January 2004, "Many positive developments since the end of major combat operations in April 2003 . . . make it eminently feasible for the U.S.-led reconstruction to produce a stable, prosperous and pluralist Iraq over the course of the next 5-15 years."
Even leading Democrats have acknowledged recently that an abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq would invite a catastrophic meltdown of order. Yet the Pentagon's deployment cycle means that troop strength will begin to decline next year at the latest. The problem for the United States remains, in what way will U.S. forces come home or redeploy, and how quickly will it happen?
Much is riding on next month's report to Congress by Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, whose counterinsurgency tactics are widely applauded. But we already know he won't say Iraq is lost, nor that victory is at hand. In all likelihood, he will point to some encouraging signs, acknowledge that the challenges remain immense and suggest that more time is needed.
But at this late stage, when so much has gone wrong, so much of Iraq remains terribly dangerous, the government is disintegrating and casualties are higher than they were a year earlier, optimism is too much to expect.
Despite Bush’s repeated statements that the report will reflect evaluations by Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, administration officials said it would actually be written by the White House, with inputs from officials throughout the government.
And though Petraeus and Crocker will present their recommendations on Capitol Hill, legislation passed by Congress leaves it to the president to decide how to interpret the report’s data.