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September 04, 2007

If the Democrat Presidential candidates are to act as serious politicians, they must support the Iraq surge - argues John Bew

Posted by John Bew

The Democrat Presidential candidates - if they are serious, responsible politicians - must support the Iraq surge, at least for the time being. Or so argues John Bew, Research Fellow in History at Peterhouse, Cambridge and an editor of The British Moment: The Case for Democratic Geopolitics in the Twenty-first Century.

US political debate has become bitterly partisan over the last year, so much so that immediate short-term political considerations have blotted out long-term strategic imperatives. As the Presidential nominees try to outbid each other on the issue of the war, there is a danger that the Democrats could become simply a "troops out" party, with little else to offer as a serious palliative for the huge difficulties that face Iraq.

With so much American blood and money already expended in this fight, the sentiment behind this cry is understandable and, as the Democratic hopefuls are certainly aware, popular among the grassroots. The implosion of John McCain's campaign - as the one candidate more closely associated with General Petraeus's "surge" than any other - seems to provide an additional warning as to just where the mood of the country lies.

However, in the rush to become the person who hammers the final nail into the Bush administration's coffin, the Democrats are in danger of tying their own hands behind their back, before they even get a chance to face up to the very real threats which face the United States. Any serious prospective incumbent to the White House must think clearly on this issue and move beyond his or her election campaign. If, as polls would indicate, it is the Democrats who manage to prevail in the Presidential campaign, they are in danger of making a rod for their own back on national security and seriously restricting their freedom of manoeuvre in office.

A very good reason to take stock of where they stand is that General Petraeus's "surge" of troops in Iraq has had, at the very least, some success. In the UK, understandably, the predominant focus has been on the withdrawal of British troops from a number of important posts in southern Iraq. In turn, Shia militias have increased the frequency of attacks in order to create the impression that the British are retreating as a defeated force. Nevertheless, the evident tensions between the British and the American strategies should not entirely cloud the areas where there has been progress towards common goals. William Shawcross recently had to rely on the pages of The Sun to funnel-in encouraging news from the front line:

We are winning defeating the Al-Qaeda brand.
These were the words that Shawcross attributed to British General Graeme Lamb, who has just finished a one-year tour of Iraq as deputy to General Petraeus.

It has also been reported that progress has been achieved in hot dens of the insurgency such as Fallujah and that Al Qaeda is suffering very serious setbacks in Salah and Din province. Particularly encouraging are the accounts of local tribal leaders turning against jihadist brutality and rounding on Al Qaeda in the notorious Al-Anbar province. Some have taken the decision to work directly with the Coalition troops, albeit temporarily.

Of course, there have been moments of misplaced optimism and other false dawns before; the extent of the recent sectarian outrage against the Yazidi people in the Sinjar region of north-west Iraq represents just how quickly and brutally the clock can be put back. Nevertheless, among foreign policy analysts in Washington there is a bullishness and renewed confidence in the campaign that is in marked contrast to the previous twelve months. Reports suggest that troop morale and trust in Petraeus is still high, despite the continued losses which are a consequence of the surge. One senior commentator recently reflected that the United States military apparatus often gets things wrong in the theatre of war; the important thing is that it learns from its mistakes quicker than its enemies.

Much more worthy of comment is the fact that there has been a marked departure from a narrowly partisan reading of the situation, on the part of some influential figures within the Democrat fold. Brookings Institution Scholars, Michael E. O'Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack recently used the op-ed page of the New York Times to argue that:

We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms.
Ideologically, the significance of this new input into the debate should not be overstated. This was not a surprise conversion to the cause; both men are leftish hawks who were prominent in support of the war, although they have been fiercely critical of the Bush administration's tactics and strategy since the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, both men also have serious credentials on national security; O'Hanlon fronts the Iraq Index, which constantly updates and analyses information on reconstruction and security; Pollack, among other things, including a lengthy stint at CIA, worked in the National Security Council under President Clinton.

It should be said that the comments of O'Hanlon and Pollack were still tinctured with elements of scepticism and they have since insisted to the Washington newspaper The Politico that their views reflect "just temporary optimism". In addition, critics have made the point that they fail to take into the account the continued impasse in Iraq's political progress, by focusing too much on security.

In other words, these sentiments are unlikely to be echoed at by the Democrat Presidential candidates in the near future. Nevertheless, they have coincided with something of a scrambling and repositioning at the highest level of the party.

On the surface, Barack Obama's recent assertion that he would consider American military action in Pakistan seemed to be clumsy and ill considered. At second glance, it is hard to believe that he had been so badly advised; many now see this statement as a headline-grabbing attempt to beef up his image, following recent softly spoken admissions that, as American President, he would talk to Fidel Castro or Iran. Such slips can see a campaign unravel in days; Obama was no doubt aware that the Clinton campaign had leapt on his original statement in a flash.

"Barack Obama, Neocon", joked the Wall Street Journal in response to his attempt to retrieve some ground:

Democratic Presidential hopeful Barack Obama is taking heat from liberals and conservatives alike for his comment that he wouldn't hesitate to send U.S. troops into Pakistan to capture or kill al Qaeda leaders. Actually, it's the best thing we've heard yet from the junior U.S. Senator from Illinois.
Whoever wins the Democrat nomination must appeal to the grassroots of the party, who have completely run out of patience with the war. But equally, they also know that national security will be a definitive issue when they present themselves to the country at large. This is a precarious position to maintain and it is not unreasonable to expect one or two casualties in the race over the next few months.

Meanwhile, those who have expressed optimism about the surge in recent weeks will also be grimly aware that the quandary works both ways. If the current flash of optimism is misplaced and the surge suffers another serious downturn in fortune, it will become almost impossible to justify further such endeavours for much longer into 2008; whatever the price of defeat, the underlying reality is that democracies are impatient beasts.

Jihadists have shown that they are still capable of catching the eye in the most horrific way but they must not be allowed to shape the agenda. Ultimately, it is in everyone's interests - Iraqis, Americans and Britons - that the future of the Coalition presence in Iraq is decided on the basis of strategic rather than political imperatives. It is one thing to believe that the surge is another hopeless endeavour and doomed to fail. It is quite another to maintain that line against evidence that it is achieving some success; to get oneself in the position where US military failure in Iraq actually becomes desirable, in order to serve domestic agendas. For the moment, recrimination should not be the only game in town.

John Bew is a Research Fellow in History at Peterhouse, Cambridge. He is an editor of The British Moment: The Case for Democratic Geopolitics in the Twenty-first Century.

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