Shift­ing per­cep­tions of the war

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - MICHAEL BARONE

It’s not of­ten that an opin­ion ar­ti­cle shakes up Wash­ing­ton and changes the way a ma­jor is­sue is viewed. But that hap­pened last week, when the New York Times printed an opin­ion ar­ti­cle by Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion an­a­lysts Michael O’Han­lon and Ken Pol­lack on the progress of the surge strat­egy in Iraq.

Yes, progress. Mr. O’Han­lon and Mr. Pol­lack sup­ported the in­va­sion of Iraq in 2003 — Mr. Pol­lack even wrote a book urg­ing the over­throw of Sad­dam Hus­sein — but they have sharply crit­i­cized mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions there in the en­su­ing years.

“As two an­a­lysts who have harshly crit­i­cized the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s mis­er­able han­dling of Iraq,” they wrote, “we were sur­prised by the gains we saw and the po­ten­tial to pro­duce not nec­es­sar­ily ‘vic­tory,’ but a sus­tain­able sta­bil­ity that both we and the Iraqis could live with.”

Their bot­tom line: “There is enough good hap­pen­ing on the bat­tle­fields of Iraq to­day that Congress should plan on sus­tain­ing the ef­fort at least into 2008.”

That’s not what al­most all their fel­low Democrats in Congress want to hear. Fresh­man Rep. Nancy Boyda of Kansas, who un­seated Repub­li­can Jim Ryun last fall, bolted from a hear­ing room when re­tired Gen. Jack Keane de­scribed pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ments in Iraq. When she came back, she ex­plained: “But let me first just say that the de­scrip­tion of Iraq as in some way or an­other that it’s a place that I might take the fam­ily for a vacation — things are go­ing so well — those kinds of com­ments will in fact show up in the me­dia and fur­ther di­vide this coun­try, in- stead of say­ing, here’s the re­al­ity of the prob­lem. And peo­ple, we have to come to­gether and deal with the re­al­ity of this is­sue.”

But re­al­ity can change — and in war it of­ten does. For Ge­orge W. Bush and his lead­ing ad­vis­ers, the re­al­ity of Iraq in June 2003 was that we had won a ma­jor mil­i­tary vic­tory and any post­war messi­ness was not a big prob­lem. We would put a pro­con­sul in for a year, set up elec- tions and in­stall an Iraqi gov­ern­ment, train Iraqi sol­diers and po­lice, and re­strict our troops to a light foot­print. But that re­al­ity changed, into full-fledged sec­tar­ian war­fare, af­ter al Qaeda bombed the Shi’ite mosque in Sa­marra in Fe­bru­ary 2006.

Mr. Bush and his mil­i­tary com­man­ders acted as if that re­al­ity hadn’t changed, un­til the vot­ers weighed in last Novem- ber. Then Mr. Bush made changes, in­stalling new com­man­ders and or­der­ing a surge — an in­crease in troops, and a more for­ward strat­egy of con­fronting and clean­ing out al Qaeda ter­ror­ists. And the re­al­ity ap­par­ently has once again changed.

It can be ar­gued that the surge will prove in­suf­fi­cient to pro­duce the “sus­tain­able sta­bil­ity” that Mr. O’Han­lon and Mr. Pol­lack see as a pos­si­ble re­sult. Se­ri­ous mil­i­tary ex­perts have ar­gued we still don’t have enough troops or won’t be able to keep enough troops in place long enough: Cur­rent force ro­ta­tions in­di­cate a net draw­down of troops next spring. And cer­tainly there is room to ar­gue Mr. Bush should have acted sooner, as the re­sults of the Sa­marra bomb­ing be­came ap­par­ent months be­fore the vot­ers’ wakeup call.

But it is also rea­son­ably clear Mrs. Boyda’s “re­al­ity of this is­sue” — that our ef­fort in Iraq has defini­tively and fi­nally failed so clearly that there should be no fur­ther dis­cus­sion — may no longer be oper­a­tive. That, in­stead of ac­cept­ing de­feat and invit­ing chaos, we may be able to achieve a sig­nif­i­cant mea­sure of suc­cess.

Wars don’t stand still. In June 1942, the House of Com­mons de­bated a res­o­lu­tion of no con­fi­dence in Win­ston Churchill’s gov­ern­ment. Four months later came the war-chang­ing vic­tory at El Alamein.

Gen. David Pe­traeus, the au­thor of the Army’s new coun­terin­sur­gency man­ual and the com­man­der in Iraq, is sched­uled to re­port on the surge in mid-Septem­ber. The prospect of an even par­tially pos­i­tive re­port has sent chills up the spines of Demo­cratic lead­ers in Congress. That, says House Ma­jor­ity Whip Jim Cly­burn, would be “a real big prob­lem for us.”

The Demo­cratic base has been fu­ri­ous that Democrats in Congress haven’t pulled the plug on the war al­ready, and Demo­cratic strate­gists have an­tic­i­pated big elec­toral gains from mil­i­tary de­feat. But if the course of the war can change, so can pub­lic opin­ion.

A cou­ple of re­cent polls showed in­creased sup­port for the de­ci­sion to go to war and be­lief that the surge is work­ing. If opin­ion con­tin­ues to shift that way, if oth­ers come to see things as Mr. O’Han­lon and Mr. Pol­lack have, Democrats could find them­selves trapped be­tween a base that wants re­treat and de­feat, and a ma­jor­ity that wants vic­tory.

Michael Barone is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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