Even George Packer in the July 7 & 14, 2008 "New Yorker" magazine concedes, begrudgingly, that Senator Obama, the presumptive Democratic candidate for President, will have to change his policy on Iraq. Since the beginning of his candidacy Senator Obama has had what I have called a take-my-ball-and-go-home Iraq policy. His policy, as stated to everyone who would listen, was to withdraw, and continue to withdraw, U.S. forces from Iraq regardless of the circumstances on the ground.
Obviously, this policy was politically popular with a portion of the Democratic Party electorate. Supporters of this policy irresponsibly disregarded the impact of a precipitous withdrawal on the poor, long suffering Iraqi populace. But the human rights of the Iraqi citizens never were a consideration in this policy. The Iraqis couldn't take their ball and go home - they were stuck there.
In an unprecedented move, Packer actually gave some credit to President Bush, but in the most off-handed manner imaginable. "The improved conditions [in Iraq] can be attributed, in increasing order of importance, to President Bush's surge, the change in military strategy under General David Petraeus, the turning of Sunni tribes against Al Qaeda, the Sadr militia's unilateral ceasefire, and the great historical luck that brought them all together at the same moment."
In 2006 I endured many a Packer essay on Iraq - full of vitriol toward Bush, disdain toward the U.S. government's Iraq policy and unrelentingly pessimistic about any kind of favorable outcome in that tormented country (I endure these essays, and others, so that my own beliefs may be challenged and thereby strengthened - or changed). That is why I see the paragraph above as an almost pathetic argument, undeserving of publication in a a great magazine like "The New Yorker" (almost like a fan walking out of Yankee Stadium bleating that the Red Sox only won because they were lucky). There is an old sports saying about luck (in my part of the world, anyway) - "You make your own breaks."
Let's address these five issues; in reverse order, that is, to the order that Packer presented them. First, to say that the vastly improving situation in Iraq is due to luck is to discount the hard work and effort of tens if not hundreds of thousands of individuals who have contributed months if not years to the success of this endeavor. As we shall see, luck had little to do with it. Packer calls it luck because he is unable to admit that he is wrong.
Secondly, the turning of the Sunni tribes against Al Qaeda was long overdue, and I have written about this before (see my May 2007 post). The Sunni are a minority population in an oil rich country, yet no oil lies in the Sunni dominated provinces. The only chance that the Sunnis have of enjoying any prosperity in the future is as a part of the country of Iraq. That they have been particularly stubborn about admitting this fact has always been a mystery to me. The introduction of Al Qaeda into their communities was the shock that startled the Sunni out of their coma and allowed them to see where their bests interests lay. But most importantly, luck was not the reason that alert military commanders on the ground recognized the change in attitudes among the Sunni tribesmen and moved quickly to capitalize on it.
To say that the unilateral ceasefire by the Sadr militia was a random act of kindness by the volatile firebrand is odd. Sadr had been sending his Legions into the Valley of Death since 2004 without effect. He has declared a "unilateral" ceasefire because he knew that he would be slapped down quickly, just like all the other times he had tried to assert any authority.
That leaves us to the final two points: the new strategy and the surge. That the U.S. military entered Iraq in 2003 without a robust plan for the occupation or an effective plan for the ensuing insurgency was certainly bad luck for President Bush, but very few pundits or critics characterized it that way. Consequently, luck played no part in the fact that the military learned from their mistakes, developed a new counterinsurgency strategy, and then implemented this strategy boldly and effectively.
I agree with George Packer's reasons for the current success in Iraq, although I strongly disagree with his order of priority. The current success begins and ends with President Bush's decision to surge U.S. combat brigades into Iraq. That was a tough decision, not only because the political reaction was so strong, but because the burden fell heavily on the lives of so many service men and women and their families.
A former commanding general of mine used to tell us, "We are at war, more is expected of soldiers." When I heard him speak that statement I had been in the military for twenty seven years without seeing combat. When the time came, his words signaled to me what I needed to do, and how I needed to act.
So too did President Bush's decision to launch the surge send a signal to friend and foe alike. The signal to General Petraeus and his soldiers was to move forward and get the job done. The signal to the Sunni tribesmen was to join the winning side. The signal to Sadr was that this was not a man to be messed with. The conveyance of these messages was not a matter of luck but of deliberate intent.
Senator Obama has to make a decision. Will he do as he has accused President Bush of doing, to continue despite all evidence to support a failed policy? Will he see Iraq through the eyes of George Packer, who says that"[t]here will be no such thing as victory in Iraq?" Will he stand up to the Moveon.org crowd (now that they have helped assure his election) and leave the U.S. troops in Iraq long enough to see the job through, or will he stuff the Iraqi people into a sturdy sack with a heavy stone and toss them into the river?
The Iraqi people could use a bit of luck. They deserve it.