During his State of the Union message, President Bush argued that his new tactics in Iraq — sending 30,000 additional troops and having them operate actively in neighborhoods rather than return to secure bases each night — “have achieved results few of us could have imagined just one year ago.”
There is more substance to this claim than in previous years, when the president maintained an optimistic posture even when it was clear things were not going well.
But there are reasons to be more cautious than the president seems to be.
The most significant positive development over the last year was the “Anbar Awakening” that began when Sunni tribal leaders in that key province (many of whom had fought hard against Americans) became fed up with the brutality of al-Qaida leaders who had established positions of power and tried to enforce their own narrow and intolerant vision of Muslim Sharia law on lifelong Muslims whose piety was not in doubt.
As President Bush himself acknowledged, however, that movement began in the fall of 2006, before the U.S. announced the surge.
U.S. military leaders on the ground did capitalize on the Awakening movement skillfully, providing money, weapons and leadership. But the Awakening preceded the surge and while the surge helped make it more effective and widespread, it was not dependent on the surge.
Furthermore, there is evidence that the pro-American sympathies of Awakening leaders may not be permanent.
The U.S. goal has been to integrate these anti-al-Qaida militias into the national police and military forces, but the Shia-dominated national government has been reluctant to welcome brigades of well-trained and well-armed Sunni fighters into the fold.
One Awakening leader told the British Independent newspaper last week that if progress on that front doesn’t come soon, the movement may turn anti-American again.
Another factor that contributed to the reduction in violence in Iraq was the decision by the virulently anti-American Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to order his vicious Mahdi Army militia to observe a cease-fire last August.
But Mahdi Army leaders are now urging the cleric to end the cease-fire. If he does, violence in Iraq could return to pre-surge levels quickly, no matter how many U.S. troops are in the country.
The point here is that no matter how many troops are in Iraq, the United States will have less actual control than we might think or hope.
The other reason for caution is that the Iraqi government has taken virtually none of the steps toward national reconciliation that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki and President Bush purportedly agreed a year ago were essential and high on the priority list.
Even the revision of the de-Baathification law the president mentioned in the State of the Union address was less conciliatory than appeared on the surface; significantly, most Sunni members of the Iraqi parliament voted against it.
Meanwhile, in more than a year there has been no progress beyond preliminary proposals on constitutional revision, an oil revenue-sharing law, local elections, or other measures deemed essential to reconciliation.
Iraqi leaders now say their own security forces won’t be ready to handle security on their own until 2018. It is difficult not to believe that so long as the administration resists any discussion of ending the U.S. commitment in Iraq and keeps sending money, the Iraqis themselves feel little urgency about assuming full responsibility for their own country.
We hope the rosy scenario the president painted pans out. But there are reasons to doubt that it will — and to wonder whether this administration is capable of assessing dangers that don’t fit into the rosy scenario realistically.