On the Petraeus testimony

A week after he presented it to a joint Congressional committee, I have now half-read, half-skimmed Gen. David Petraeus’s opening statement on progress in Iraq (in pdf). It does not contain any significant information that I had not already picked up from news reports, but does provide a better feel for his approach. Here are my thoughts.

A major difference between Gen. Petraeus and his predecessors is that he’s not speaking escapist slogans and spin. He is highly focused in a technical way on serious counter-insurgency warfare—making measurable progress in securing neighborhoods, killing al Qaeda fighters and other bad men, finding weapons and IED caches, destroying al Qaeda strongholds, encouraging Iraqis (including Sunnis) to join the security forces and so on. He is not making grandiose claims about some undefined victory that is just around the corner. He is not talking about democracy and all that stuff. So this is a different level of intellect and honesty from the mealy-mouthed bureaucrats and craven political generals whom we’ve had in Iraq up to now (I’m thinking of Abizaid, Sanchez, and Casey).

As a mark of Petraeus’s caution and honesty, he refuses to speak of the size of any force reductions beyond summer 2008, because he says we cannot predict what the situation will be.

However, this caution also points to the underlying problem, which I’ve been discussing for years and which is not changed by the surge or by Petraeus’s testimony about it. The significant advances that he has led on the ground do not connect with any strategic objective. Petraeus’s statements are limited to the micro dimension of the problem, which is, after all, his domain. He’s a competent and intelligent military technocrat, but that’s all he is. Thus, while referring to our “goals” in Iraq, he never says what these goals are (a point also made at 2 Blowhards, which was linked from Parapundit). He seems to have no larger view of what the conflict is about, of why we are in Iraq, except that we are in Iraq to avoid the catastrophe that will occur if we withdraw too soon from Iraq.

That’s the negative part, the reason why we can’t leave Iraq. We have a wolf by the ears, and—within our current understanding of the “war on terror”—we cannot let it go.

On the other hand, Petraeus’s view of our positive mission, as Diana West pointed out in a withering column last May, is incoherent, because it depends on a change that must take place among the Iraqis themselves, a change that we have no power to effect. Bush supporter Ralph Peters inadvertently revealed the same incoherence in our policy in a column about Petraeus last June (see the end of my blog entry about it). And the same incoherence was seen in Petraeus’s September 10 testimony, where he admitted that the military successes have not translated into political progress, in which the various Iraqi groups would form a real and unified government instead of a collection of sectarian ethnic factions.

To grasp the problem, consider his remarks about the nature of Iraqi society:

The fundamental source of the conflict in Iraq is competition among ethnic and sectarian communities for power and resources. This competition will take place, and its resolution is key to producing long-term stability in the new Iraq. The question is whether the competition takes place more—or less—violently. This chart shows the security challenges in Iraq. Foreign and home-grown terrorists, insurgents, militia extremists, and criminals all push the ethno-sectarian competition toward violence. Malign actions by Syria and, especially, by Iran fuel that violence. Lack of adequate governmental capacity, lingering sectarian mistrust, and various forms of corruption add to Iraq’s challenges.

So, there’s all this competition, and we have to make it non-violent. Fine. Let’s say we continued our success in substantially reducing the violence. That would give us the ability to step down our forces. But, Iraq being Iraq, it is predictable that as soon as we reduce our forces, the violence will increase again, necessitating an increase in our forces.

Further, even if the conflict remained non-violent for the time being, the underlying fact about Iraq, which is that it is composed of competing ethnic and sectarian communities that are, at best, always on the edge of violence, indicates that the desideratum of a unified energetic government capable of suppressing any future violence and maintaining its own existence is very unlikely to be reached. Petraeus can thus achieve all the counterinsurgency success that could be hoped for, and it won’t change the divided nature of Iraq society or allow Iraq to form a viable government allowing us to leave. So the macro success of which President Bush’s supporters constantly speak remains a very doubtful prospect. That’s why our leaders, notably Petraeus, keep focusing on discrete, measurable tasks that, unfortunately, don’t lead to the desired strategic objective.

As I wrote in my September 10 blog article, “The debilitating dream that never dies”:

The surge from the start has been touted as a break with past thinking in Iraq; for example, in the surge we would leave our forces in place in a given area after driving out the enemy, instead of pulling our troops out and allowing the enemy to return. But despite these positive difference from our past mindless operations, the assumption underlying the surge is exactly the same as our fallacious underlying assumption in the past, namely that by some military operation we can create a viable Iraqi government….

… On one hand, we want to achieve a certain objective, a viable Iraqi government. On the other hand, we have no ability to create a viable government in Iraq or any Muslim country. We are, however, very good at doing certain other things, such as killing enemies and repairing schools and building sewage facilities. So what do we do? We focus all our formidable energies and skills on the jobs that we are good at (killing enemies, fixing water systems), and imagine that our doing the jobs that we can do will somehow lead to the successful completion of the job that we cannot do…. For the last four years, the greatest nation on earth has been pouring its spirit, its energy, its treasure, its reputation, and the lives and limbs of its young men into an endeavor based on magic.

And that—notwithstanding Petraeus’s successes and honesty in dealing with the micro level of the Iraq counterinsurgency—remains the problem. Petraeus himself does not talk magic talk. But the policy that he is executing and advocating is still based on magic.

* * *

A final point: The fact that the Democrats saw fit to impugn Petraeus’s honor and veracity, instead of addressing the larger questions of “where do we go, what is this about, how do these military gains transfer into success” (which in any case are not really Petraeus’s job, but the president’s), shows that the Democrats for the most part are unable to engage in any useful, non-toxic debate in this country. They are a curse.

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Richard B. writes:

As usual, your observations and analysis are right on.

We should think of that region as a black hole sucking in everything thrown at it (to appease the Islamic dragon?), money, lives, time and space, with George Bush standing at the “event horizon” shouting “we’re almost there!” as all our good deeds pass into the darkness.

The myths of Jason and Ulysses tell us there are some places where you shouldn’t go.

Donna E. writes:

Unless we begin to see that Islam is the enemy we will make no progress. We are intent on giving our country away to the loWest bidder. We refuse to see the alliances being made with Iran and Venezuela and Cuba. We are in worse shape than we were in the late 30’s because we are in a far more dangerous world.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 18, 2007 09:45 PM | Send

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