Iraq is getting better, but we are not done

Earlier in the week, I read this piece by Bernard Finel of the bipartisan but John Kerry led American Security Project. I have been struggling with how to respond to it. Final first argues that we are hitting metrics of improvement in Iraq. The Economist makes a very similar point. It seems clear that they are correct. Unfortunately, Finel, a man of the left and the Huffington Post, Finel goes too far and declares the progress illusory. The Economist, on the other hand, finds room for tentative optimism, or, quoting Petraeus, finds that progress is “fragile and reversible”.

Finel's broader point is legitimate though. We must not let our domestic politics which will get very nasty over the next 5 months, get in the way of our assessment of what is happening on the ground. Read on.

Finel grasps the scope of the challenge that we face, but seems to think that it is both illusory and that it will be exploited for electoral gain:

This is a generational struggle. Our enemies are serious, dangerous, and unfortunately resilient. We cannot declare the struggle over for electoral convenience. The media failed to challenge the Bush Administration sufficiently on the Iraq war; perhaps as a group, the media ought to cast a more skeptical eye on recent claims that the “war on terror” is being won.

I prefer the way that The Economist makes this same point without seemingly pre-judging the resolution:

The violence, albeit still ferocious in parts of the country, has subsided dramatically. The American military “surge” that began a year ago has worked better than even the optimists had hoped, helped by ceasefires with Shia militias, by accords with Sunni tribal leaders and by the fact that sectarian cleansing in many areas is sadly complete.

The Economist also notes that progress is also being made on legal and economic fronts. What Finel fails to really account for in his analysis is the optimism on the ground in Iraq. Again, The Economist tries to capture this:

American officials in Baghdad are careful to avoid the misplaced triumphalism expressed immediately after the invasion five years ago. Progress, as General David Petraeus, the American commander on the ground, is wont to say, is “fragile and reversible”. But in Baghdad's Green Zone, the sealed-off sanctuary on the west bank of the River Tigris where the American-led coalition's headquarters and most of Iraqi ministries are ensconced, optimism is back in the air, reflecting a broader change of mood in the country. An opinion poll in February that asked Iraqis “How would you say things are going overall these days?” found that 43% said they were going well, up from only 22% in September. Among Shias, the figure rose from 39% to 61%; among Sunnis, it went from a paltry 2% to 16%, but a notable jump all the same. If the poll were conducted today, the answers would be more positive still.

These poll numbers are, frankly, astonishing.

The question that we need to seriously address is how we can protect the operations in Iraq from the next 5 months of brutal politics in the United States. John McCain clearly, and I think rightfully, thinks he has the upper-hand on this issue, which is why he invited Barack Obama to join him on a trip to Iraq. The entire logic of Obama's candidacy unravels if he were to acknowledge succcess in Iraq.

But if the next 5 months of debate on Iraq policy is spent relitigating the decision to go into Iraq, as Finel finally ends up doing, rather than figuring out where to go from here in a way that maximizes Iraqi stability and American interest, we will not be serving our country well at all.