Return on Success?

For most of the last year, the dominant narrative in most media, and for most voters, has been that we are getting nowhere in Iraq and that the Democrats, after their victory in last November’s elections, are going to get out of Iraq.

But events are not playing out that way. Last week, the Senate failed to pass an amendment that would have made it more difficult to rotate troops into Iraq — and passed, by a 72-to-25 margin, a resolution denouncing the ad that attacked "General Betray Us" for "cooking the books."

Polls show that the public approves of Petraeus’ performance and endorses his recommendations for going forward with the surge — the first margin of approval for the administration’s course of action in a long time.

Petraeus argued convincingly that we are making real progress in Iraq, that the downward spiral of violence has been turned around and that the battle against al-Qaida in Iraq is meeting with success. George W. Bush, in a Roosevelt Room interview with columnists, made it plain that he is determined to provide Petraeus with the troops he needs, and the Democratic Congress has made it plain that it will not stop him.

To be sure, Petraeus has recommended reducing forces, starting in December, and going back to pre-surge levels next summer. But this is a far different thing from what the Democrats had in mind six months ago. And the results on the ground seem to be far different from what they expected.

True, some Democrats persist in saying that the aggressive surge strategy has made no difference, and large numbers of voters are not convinced that it has. But it is now possible that the added troops will, in Bush’s phrase, "return on success." That’s a sharp change from what has been the dominant narrative.

Another event that undermines that narrative took place on Sept. 6, but only began to be appreciated in Washington last week. That was the Israeli air attack on Syria. Israeli officials have said nothing in public about this (although opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu said he supported the action), and Bush flatly refused to comment in his press conference. But on Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens speculated that "the least unlikely possibility" was that the target was a North Korean nuclear installation.

North Korean technicians were known to be in Syria, and the North Korean government protested the attack. By Friday, The Washington Post reported that "Israel’s decision to attack Syria on Sept. 6, bombing a suspected nuclear site set up in apparent collaboration with North Korea, came after Israel shared intelligence with President Bush this summer indicating that North Korean nuclear personnel were in Syria, said U.S. government sources."

Bush has been mocked for calling Iraq, Iran and North Korea "the axis of evil." Suddenly that doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Iran’s ally Syria has apparently been in cahoots with faraway North Korea. And perhaps Iran has been, as well; perhaps this was part of the mullahs’ efforts to get their hands on nuclear weapons.

The Syrian program may have been stopped by Israel’s Sept. 6 air strike, just as Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program was stopped by Israel’s destruction of his Osirak reactor in 1981. That was condemned by just about everyone at the time, including the Reagan administration. But today almost every decent person is glad it happened.

The response to Petraeus and the emerging story about the Israeli air strike lead to two conclusions, both at odds with what has been the dominant narrative. It’s a dangerous world. And we can make progress. Advocates of speedy withdrawal from Iraq talk as if there would be no bad consequences afterward, as we face no other threats in the world.
But the possibility of a nuclear Iran is a real threat, one which Bush says he gives as much attention to as Iraq. The success so far of the surge strategy and the apparent success of the Israeli air strike indicate that there are things we can do to meet those threats.

The dominant narrative is that we are headed to defeat in Iraq, and Bush’s political adversaries want him to acknowledge that. With stubbornness or steadfastness — call it either one — he has refused to do so and now has started to establish a different narrative, "return on success." Voters may come to understand that however delicious the Democrats find defeat, its consequences in a dangerous world would be devastating.