Two big but seemingly unrelated things happened on the Hill yesterday -- the State of the Union speech and the appearance of Lt. Gen. David Howell Petraeus at a hearing to confirm him as the new U.S. ground commander in Iraq.
You can watch the SOTU at ThinkProgress -- something I suggest doing even if you've seen it already as they've synthesized it in a searchable video form annotated with a relatively comprehensive fact checking. I encourage writing letters to the editor refuting Shrub's speech using these countering facts as a basis. You'll have to comment on the things that were absent -- any mention of Katrina and the failture of the Gulf Coast recovery effort that has Barney Frank referring to it as a form of "ethnic cleansing" and that there were no bones thrown to the religious political extremists and what that means, for instance -- on your own -- well, that and Michele's Manic Prez Grab. Post copies of them in the comments section here for all to see. (I plan to hit the dangerous horsepucky that is Shrub's big healthcare plan hard myself, so critical is that regarding our disproportionately under- and self-employed thus disproportionately dependent on individually underwritten health insurance LGBT population.)
What else a fact-checking analysis of the SOTU misses, beyond Shrub's making yet another threat of creating a new front against Iran, in looking just at the section on Iraq, is the folly of relying on our will to win in a war that will depend instead on the will of the Iraqis. We have not been short of will to win -- the sacrifices of life and/or limb of well over fifty-thousand American fighting women and men to date are proof enough of that, not to mention the willingness of hundreds of thousands more to serve and millions more to do without loved ones in service abroad plus the people's engagement in war debt that will haunt our grandchildren and beyond. No, we are not short of will to win.
This 'will to win' mantra figured prominently in Gen. Petraeus' remarks at his hearing, too.
Before anyone thinks to write me off as some military-hating uber-liberal, let me say that I deeply admire Gen. Petraeus,
whose career I first took notice of in the early days of this war when he commanded the fabled 101st Airborne at Mosul and my cousin, Lucian Truscott, was permitted to be an embedded journalist with his troops there for a time. I learned through long, almost daily correspondence with Luc how deeply Gen. Petraeus cares for the troops under his command. (Especially instructive was a description of the general's immediate and blistering phone call to the KBR supplier who was delivering to troops at a forward station moldy fruit and cold-instead-of-hot food from filthy kitchens for premium prices when my cousin brought this to his attention. Even more instructive was the general's attentive follow-through -- the effect of which was extended even beyond his area of command.)
I favorably compared his treatment of prisoners to that at Abu G'raib then came to a similarly positive comparison of his method of flushing out insurgents in residential neighborhoods (called "cordon and knock") compared to the more terror-inducing methods being employed elsewhere that were reinforcing the growing insurgency, and how he coupled that with the only reconstruction program in Iraq that really worked. "The real goal is to create as many Iraqis as possible who feel they have a stake in the new Iraq," he said about his program that combines a comparatively low-violence soft hand militarily with lots of direct local diplomacy and dependable follow-through such as ensuring that local contractors are given as much preference as possible and that they are treated fairly and paid on time.
I started doing more research into his background and discovered what a strong intellect and fine education he has (West Point, Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (MPA, PhD in International Affairs with a dissertation on how Vietnam has affected U.S. military strategic thought), a post-doc fellowship at Georgetown, and deep study of how the British and others have done both good jobs and bad in dealing with insurgency-based conflicts, among many other accomplishments. And I've kept tabs on his progress since then, including his short stint trying to train the Iraqi security forces and what he learned from that before he was reassigned to command Fort Leavenworth and the Army Combined Arms Center (home of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, from which he'd been the honor graduate of his class and where he wrote and oversaw adoption of the Army's new manual on handling insurgencies) before he could really get that going. His has been, to say the least, a stellar career of a man with a reputation for not accepting failure and the energy and vision thusfar not to have had to.
And therein may lie the problem. Gen. Petraeus has never seemed to have had the sobering, annealing experience of major failure. He believes he can out-think, out-strategize, out-plan, and out-will the enemy he faces in Iraq -- and he believes it with a surety that only the perpetually successful would claim. But take a look at what happened in Mosul after the 101st was rotated back home in the Spring of 2004 -- it literally fell apart like an unmaintained house of cards on a windy plain.
When my cousin was there, he was already picking up grumblings from caring officers on Petraeus' staff about the problems a lack of continuity were causing. It's not that they distrusted or disagreed with their general's basic thinking on counter-insurgency work in Iraq -- exactly the opposite. But they were aware that it would take a great deal longer than the time they had been allotted which is many times longer than the five months that Gen. Clark and the White House flaks have been alluding to as our begin-to-get-out date. His is, as I mentioned above, a program that depends on reliability, relationship-building, and follow-through -- and that, as well as training a security force to make the economic and infrastructure repairs and changes happen then take meaningful hold takes time -- lots of time -- and probably many more troops than he's being given to work with.
Further, Petraeus' methods have been primarily worked out on guerrilla forces predominantly focused against an invader in a way that temporarily superceded old ethnic, religious, or political conflicts and civil wars. Iraq, in contrast, is more and more a case of full-blown civil war with our troops getting killed by getting in its way as well as by a small outside force of true terrorists allied loosely with one faction in the civil war -- but only very loosely. Maliki has yet to disavow the use of U.S. trained Iraqi security forces on behalf of one of those factions -- the Shia. And Maliki and the Kurds are growing increasingly friendly with the Shia extremist-Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah quadrangle that threatens more each day, with the U.S. backing of the Sunni Saudi regime, to blow the region sky high.
Gen. Petraeus is a very smart man who adjusts his thinking fluidly when new input requires and I have no doubt that he'll do as much of that as he's allowed to do this time, too. But there're two more things not in his favor -- the way both this administration and, in response, Congress on both sides of the aisle have and likely will treat this war as political fodder more than a military and diplomatic problem and the disgusting ignorance of too many of them of even the basic knowledge of the region, its history, and its culture necessary to competently formulate policy that has a chance of success. It is will without honor or discipline and any soldier knows what a dangerous combination that is.