Petraeus's Policy Quandary

“We are not self-employed,” said Gen. David Petraeus in response to a question of how he would advise the next president on Iraq. In hearings last Tuesday and Wednesday, Gen. Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker reported again to four congressional committees on the situation in Iraq. 

Petraeus, answering that question from House Armed Services Committee Member Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) in Wednesday’s hearing, came as close to striking back at congressional buffoonery as he ever has. His point — that the military doesn’t set policy, civilians do — reveals the core of the political battle these hearings have become.

The Democrats have chosen to not debate the merits of the counterinsurgency Gen. Petraeus is leading brilliantly. They are single-issue debaters, speaking only of how to end the war, how quickly to withdraw and how much more the Iraq conflict will cost — in dollars, not lives — before we can. Their quarrel is with President Bush, not with the two gentlemen who are responsible for implementing his policy in Iraq. By quibbling with Petraeus and Crocker about “what comes next” the Democrats avoid speaking responsibly about what they would do about a war that will not be over even if — by some Obamamanic prestidigitation — every American soldier was out of Iraq before January 21, 2009.

Come General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker and all the Democrats ask — in about fifty different ways — is “when and how will this war be over?” That question can only be answered by President Bush. The best Gen. Petraeus could do is explain that the current phase-down of troop levels, which will bring them down to just slightly above pre-surge levels, will end in July and that it will take about forty-five days to consider the situation that then exists to decide whether and when other troops can be sent home. 

But forty-five days from the end of July is mid-September, when the presidential campaign will be racing across the nation and the media at breakneck speed. Long before that, Sen. McCain’s wish for a campaign by Marquis of Queensbury rules will have evaporated.  It will be hard, tough and nasty. Can Petraeus and Crocker avoid becoming fodder for the political loose cannons? It appears not.

Early Thursday morning, President Bush announced that he’d accepted Petraeus recommendation that withdrawals cease in July and added that Petraeus would have “…all the time he needs…” to consider what comes next. In a conference call shortly after the President’s announcement, I asked Gen. Petraeus if there were some way to avoid his next report becoming the biggest political event in September. He demurred, saying that the process of reporting was well-established and used frequently (by teleconferences) with his chain of command including the White House.

A White House’s political calculation will determine when Petraeus and Crocker are next subjected to the campaign media machine. It will be no earlier than mid-September, after both presidential nominations are set. If Sen. Obama is the Democratic nominee, as seems most likely, the next set of hearings may be the determining event of the campaign. The Democrats, at least, will attempt to make it so.

Between now and then, there needs to be some critical thinking in the White House about the central question of this week’s hearings. If there is not, nothing Petraeus and Crocker will be able to do in the coming months will have much effect on the President’s Iraq policy that more and more Republicans are concluding is failing.

The President has always defined victory as an Iraq that can govern, sustain and defend itself and be an ally in the larger war. But as the testimony of Petraeus and Crocker illustrated this week, that cannot occur while Iran (and Syria and others of Iraq’s neighbors) continue their intervention to prevent it.

From Petraeus’s and Crocker’s statements this week, it’s clear that they believe resolving Iran’s interference is a sine qua non of establishing Iraq’s security. In the Thursday morning conference call, Gen. Petraeus indicated that it was the central issue of the way ahead. Iran, in Petraeus’s view, is “the wolf that’s running closest to the sled.” Its running room has been reduced by the Shia backlash to the violence its Qods Force (part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps that was declared a terrorist organization last October) has inflicted on Iraqis. But it is the dominant force preventing success (by the President’s misguided definition) in Iraq.

But Iran has far more leverage on — and far better planning for — Iraq than the White House does. For example, Moqtada al-Sadr, the murderous Shia cleric whose militia was attacked by Iraqi forces in Basra with very mixed results, is in Iran. Why?

Gen. Petraeus confirmed that Sadr is in Iran, apparently studying to raise the level of his religious credentials. No one knows if Iran plans to declare him an ayatollah and supreme leader of the Shia in Iraq. The current highest Shia cleric — al-Sistani — knows he is endangered by Sadr. Sadr was directly responsible for murdering one competing Shia cleric before American forces arrived in Baghdad. He wouldn’t hesitate to kill Sistani if he could. (Sistani’s son recently said that militias should not have weapons, only legitimate security forces should.) 

But the signals on Sadr are, Gen. Petraeus said, conflicting and unclear. And the Iranians are believed to be divided on their strategy to dominate post-American Iraq. They are desperate to be able to declare they have defeated us, but they are held back by their desire to avoid a Sunni resurgence in a failed Shia state. They are in no worse a position than we are, and probably in one that’s a good bit better.

In a White House meeting a few weeks ago, a top White House official indicated that the President wants to make one last big change to affect events in Iraq and the larger war.  What that will be, he indicated, was still very much undecided. What the President must do, as I’ve written many times, is to correct the public’s current misunderstanding of what this war is by redefining the enemy and the elements of which victory must consist.

If Iraq becomes a democracy, that’s — at best — an ancillary accomplishment. We are at war with the ideology that is radical Islam and all its adherents. Those nations that sponsor radical Islamic terrorism — Iran, Syria and, yes, Saudi Arabia — must be compelled to end that sponsorship by whatever means necessary. Nothing less will comprise victory. 

Will President Bush reach this conclusion and reorient the war before he leaves office? Probably not. He’s still in thrall to the neocon nightmare of nation-building. Fire the neocons, Mr. President. Redefine the war to fit reality. And then set about fighting it in a manner calculated to win decisively.