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July 31, 2007

The Trouble with O'Hanlon and Pollack
Posted by Michael Cohen

Let me first take this brief opportunity to thank Ilan and the folks at Democracy Arsenal for the opportunity to guestblog. There is so much to talk about in the news today, it's hard to know where to start, but like many in the blogosphere I wanted to offer a few comments on the recent NYT editorial by Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack on Iraq.

Much of the criticism, atleast on sites like TPM, Thinkprogress and others has been directed at the mainstream media for giving Pollack and O'Hanlon an enormous amount of media coverage, particularly since they've been pretty much consistently wrong on everything about the war from the beginning; as well as the fact that O'Hanlon published a Brookings report at complete odds with his op-ed. All fair points, but really the issue here is the substance of their comments - and that deserves as mush criticism as anything else.

O'Hanlon and Pollack claim that from a military perspective the surge is working. Having not been to Iraq I will not try to quibble with their assertions (no matter my own reservations or those raised in the Brookings report) yet one passage in their op-ed jumped out at me:

In the end, the situation in Iraq remains grave. In particular, we still face huge hurdles on the political front. Iraqi politicians of all stripes continue to dawdle and maneuver for position against one another when major steps towards reconciliation — or at least accommodation — are needed.

You think? In case we've all forgotten, the surge was predicated on the notion that by improving the security situation in Baghdad, it would give the Iraqis breathing room to move forward on political reform. In fact, here's what the President said when he announced the surge policy in January.

This new strategy will not yield an immediate end to suicide bombings, assassinations, or IED attacks. Our enemies in Iraq will make every effort to ensure that our television screens are filled with images of death and suffering. Yet over time, we can expect to see Iraqi troops chasing down murderers, fewer brazen acts of terror, and growing trust and cooperation from Baghdad's residents. When this happens, daily life will improve, Iraqis will gain confidence in their leaders, and the government will have the breathing space it needs to make progress in other critical areas.

Yet, as O'Hanlon and Pollack acknowledge nearly seven months after the annoucement of the surge, there has been virtually no progress on any of the major political reforms that Iraq needs. And it's not as if Iraqi leaders are really putting themselves out to achieve these goals.

The surge was never meant to represent a military solution to the challenges facing Iraq. At its core, the surge represented a coordinated military and political initiative. Indeed, the two are inextricably linked. So even if you buy the notion that the military effort is acheiving success, by ignoring the Iraqi government's political failures O'Hanlon and Pollack are conveniently minimizing what is the key issue to the long-term success of the surge.

While they acknowledge that "the surge cannot go on forever," they argue "that there is enough good happening on the battlefields of Iraq today that Congress should plan on sustaining the effort at least into 2008."

Why? If after seven months of dawdling what evidence is there that Iraq's leaders will at some point actually accomplish something? Without the threat of American withdrawal or, heaven forbid, a timetable for withdrawal is there any lever that would push the Iraqis to compromise? I have yet to see one and Pollack and O'Hanlon certainly don't offer it. 

In the end, both men seem to ignore the fact that winning the battle is not the same thing as winning the war.


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Can you explain how the Brookings report is "at complete odds" with the op-ed?

The July 30 Iraq index states on page 4:

"A more thorough accounting will follow in the coming days, but in short, civilian fatality levels in Iraq now seem to
have declined substantially more than previous Pentagon reports or data had indicated. In particular, the monthly
civilian fatality rate from sectarian violence appears about one-third lower than in the pre-surge months. That is still
far too high, and remains comparable to violence levels of the 2004-2005 period, but it nonetheless reflects


"On balance, Iraq at the end of July is showing significant signs of battlefield momentum in favor of U.S./coalition
military forces, but there is nonetheless little good to report on the political front and only modest progress on the
economic side of things."

Also, you say that little political progress has been made since the announcement of the surge seven months ago. But isn't it the case that most of the additional troops were not actually deployed in Iraq until the last few months?

Finally, why should we expect political compromise by Iraqi political leaders (who just might get assassinated for their efforts) when the leadership of the majority party in the U.S. Congress (along with some Republicans) have already declared the war lost, the surge a failure, and withdrawal of U.S. troops an imperative?

According to Yglesias, O'Hanlon just backed off his optimism at a congressional hearing a few hours ago. Audio transcripts aren't up yet though, so I can't give the exact wording.

Totally backed down. Said the progress has only been against aqi, that sectarian violence and the civil war is as bad as ever, and that the current strategy will probably fail. He thinks we should partition the country. Why the turnabout from the optimistic op-ed? He didn't say.

NYer: Brookings is updating their report. The TPM piece was from before that update. The text you're quoting is new. Obviously they're within their rights to update it since they are admitting it is an update, but they haven't laid out the new data yet.

The Brookings Report has a good chunk of data that is new now - numbers that run up to July 29, 2007 - which I assume is stuff they just got.

I wouldn't be surprised if Iraqi civilian casualties are down by a third. Thats been reported a number of times over the last several months. Death squad murders are definetly down, but there are still at least 20 a day in Baghdad, 626 for July in Baghdad. For the country as a whole, puts Iraqi civilian casualties at something like 2000 a month (or close to), which is higher by a good way than they were in '04-05 on average. A good reference here is also, which tends to be on the more conservative side in its estimates. Casualties have dropped on the whole since December/January, but they were an appalling peak then. So that is very relative.

As to insurgent attacks on US troops, they are very high still, not particularly diminished - except in Anbar. But even in Anbar, there was about 400 attacks this July (as compared to 800 last year), so much of the province remains unfriendly. The major turnabout was in Ramadi.

Unless those guys pull some more stuff out, I don't really think the data is that surprising or overwhelming to support O'Hanlon's general feel for what was going on. Remember, the four places he was reporting on were places the US military wanted to take him - Ramadi, Tal Afar, Mosul, and some neighborhood in Baghdad. George Packer's recent piece at the New Yorker raises some good points with regards to the nature of what he saw.

I should add - it seems that Ramadi-Mosul-Tal Afar tour is a recurring itinerary. Those are the places Spencer Ackerman went when he went to Iraq earlier this year. I know they always take Congressman to Ramadi - at least now.

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I think some people have a problem with O'Hanlon's and Pollacks view because they feel the war was illegitimate and foolish to begin with. To see the US 'winning' would mean to see the Bushies not only vindicated but confirmed in this sort of adventurism, with the only lessons drawn from this debacle is 'how to do it better the next time' rather than staying out of it. In that sense a 'victory' or something spun like that might not in America's best interest.

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Honestly now, do politicians ever really make progress? I really doubt it.

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