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January 14, 2008

That Wacky, Wacky Bill Kristol
Posted by Michael Cohen

In what has to qualify as the man bites dog story of the week, Bill Kristol has a piece in today's New York Times arguing that Democrats are ignoring the huge success of the surge in Iraq - I know what you're thinking, "what a fresh and original insight from a conservative thinker." But, this rising conservative narrative, which has become all too familiar needs to be addressed.

Kristol argues that Democrats are living in a "fairy tale" by refusing to acknowledge the success of the surge:

The Democrats were wrong in their assessments of the surge. Attacks per week on American troops are now down about 60 percent from June. Civilian deaths are down approximately 75 percent from a year ago. December 2007 saw the second-lowest number of U.S. troops killed in action since March 2003. And according to Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of day-to-day military operations in Iraq, last month’s overall number of deaths, which includes Iraqi security forces and civilian casualties as well as U.S. and coalition losses, may well have been the lowest since the war began. Do Obama and Clinton and Reid now acknowledge that they were wrong? Are they willing to say the surge worked?

I sort of feel like a broken record on this issue, but let's once again go back to what the President said one year ago in announcing the surge:

This new strategy will not yield an immediate end to suicide bombings, assassinations, or IED attacks.   . . . 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. Most of Iraq's Sunni and Shia want to live together in peace -- and reducing the violence in Baghdad will help make reconciliation possible. A successful strategy for Iraq goes beyond military operations.  Ordinary Iraqi citizens must see that military operations are accompanied by visible improvements in their neighborhoods and communities.  So America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced.

This is exactly the criteria by which every Democrat running for President has judged the success of the surge - and rightly so; at its core the surge represented a coordinated military and political effort. The military effort has been successful, the political effort has not; ergo the surge is a failure.

Yet Kristol refuses to engage on this question, arguing that "It’s apparently impermissible for leading Democrats to acknowledge — let alone celebrate — progress in Iraq." Actually this isn't true. At the recent Democratic debate in New Hampshire all the candidates made the point that if you put 30,000 troops on the ground a decrease in violence should hardly seem surprising, but as Democrats have said ad nauseum, that isn't the criteria by which to judge the surge.

To paraphrase Kristol, it's apparently impermissible for leading Republicans to ever acknowledge the lack of political progress in Iraq.

Instead Kristol openly derides the notion:

And now Iraq’s Parliament has passed a de-Baathification law — one of the so-called benchmarks Congress established for political reconciliation. For much of 2007, Democrats were able to deprecate the military progress and political reconciliation taking place on the ground by harping on the failure of the Iraqi government to pass the benchmark legislation. They are being deprived of even that talking point.

Guess what Bill, it's not a damn talking point! The political progress and "so-called benchmarks" you so blithely dismiss is why 30,000 more American soldiers were sent to Iraq - and it's the cause for which hundreds have died. And from everything I've seen of the de-Baathification law is not all it's cracked up to be (see Juan Cole's take down here); and of course the Iraqi government is no closer to addressing the thorniest political issues; a new oil law and constitutional reform.

By the very criteria put forth by this Administration the surge has not worked, notwithstanding the pathetic attempts by Kristol, Krauthammer and others to argue otherwise.  So I'll make a deal with every and all conservative pundit, I'll write a long post praising the military success of the surge if you simply acknowledge that from a political perspective the surge has been an abject failure. Something tells me I won't get too many takers.


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The Republicans seemed to have forgotten the lesson of Vietnam in which the Americans won every miltitary enagement, but lost the war politically in that the they faield to set up a viable and stable South Vietnamese government. The same thing appears to have happaned in Iraq in which violence is down but there is not a unified government. Once the Iraq adventure fails the Republicans will probably ignore the lessons of the past and place the blame on the liberals.

Thank you for reminding your new antagonist that not only have the goals of the surge not been met but that hundreds have died in the attempt.

At the risk of appearing to beat my own dead horse here, let me point out once again that blaming the Bush administration for what the Iraqi government has not done is not going to get you anywhere politically.

In fact, Democratic Presidential candidates have all recognized this, at least to the extent that they now spend most of their time on the campaign trail talking about issues other than Iraq. This is only partly because they think their audiences care more deeply about domestic issues. Nor does the preference of all the remaining Democratic candidates for discussing domestic issues with which they have some experience explain why Iraq is not the salient issue it was, say, nine months ago.

Fundamentally, John McCain is right: Americans care about the costs of the war to us, and equate costs with casualties. If casualties are down, most Americans' interest in the war will decline also. And casualties are down; the surge -- shorthand for a radical change in tactics of which the additional troops sent to Iraq last year were not the most important component -- has worked.

It is perfectly true that much of its success is due to decisions made by Iraqi factional leaders, and a great deal to the exhaustion throughout Arab Iraq with the incessant violence as well. And the Iraqi government's leadership is plainly inadequate to its task, and the fundamental reasons for sectarian bloodletting have barely been discussed, let alone dealt with. And all the rest of it.

The question is, how badly do Democrats actually want to terminate the American adventure in Iraq? And how do they expect to win American voters over on this issue with arguments like Cohen's -- which are, as so often with Democrats and foreign policy, essentially just reactions to the administration's own talking points? If the costs of the war, and the future costs of maintaining the American commitment in Iraq, and the negligible value to this country of what we are now calling success there, are not the primary arguments being used by the war's opponents, McCain's logic will hold up very nicely.

Unless, of course, Iraq just blows up sometime before November. Democrats really don't want to be putting themselves in the position of hoping for that. Eventually, the financial cost of the war will become a salient political issue, especially if recession at home starts to appear imminent. But right now there seem to be an awful lot of Democrats who are so fond of the arguments they were making against the surge at this time last year that they cannot let them go.

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