This summer, as Republican worries over the Iraq war burst into the open, President Bush looked ahead. In July he resisted calls for troop withdrawals and urged lawmakers to wait until mid-September to allow his commander, Gen. David Petraeus, “to come back and give us the report on what he sees.” During a series of policy speeches in August the president reiterated his plea. This week the wait will be over.
The infusion of thirty thousand additional U.S. troops in January 2007, or “surge,” was meant to stabilize the country and foster reconciliation among Iraqi factions. A series of military and political benchmarks were meant to chart the Iraqi government’s progress on issues relating to national unity, security, economics, and governance. But experts disagree on the effectiveness of the surge and the value of the metrics measuring violence on the ground. Some accuse the Pentagon of “cherry-picking” (WashPost) positive numbers while downplaying the negatives. The New York Times reports that a drop in violence in Baghdad may be the result of an increased “balkanization” of neighborhoods. “Sunnis and Shiites still fear each other,” Damien Cave and Stephen Farrell of the Times writes. “At the top levels of the government and in the sweltering neighborhoods of Baghdad, hatreds are festering, not healing.”
Col. Michael Meese, a member of Petraeus’ staff measuring the benchmarks, tells CFR.org in an interview that progress has been made. Sunnis, he says, have turned against al-Qaeda in growing numbers in the “Baghdad Belts,” and the central government is making progress distributing oil wealth and forging national reconciliation. Yet a flurry of Iraq reports released in advance of the updates from Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker lent evidence to opponents of the surge, too. A new National Intelligence Estimate cites increasing divisions among Shiite factions and mounting criticism of the Shiite-led government by Sunni and Kurdish parties. The GAO finds that the Iraqi government has met three of eighteen political and military benchmarks, and has partially met four others. A third report, from a commission of retired senior military and law enforcement officers, recommends disbanding Iraq’s national police force, largely because of sectarian divisions.
James J. Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, argues all these reports point to one gloomy conclusion: “No matter how the administration spins the situation in post-surge Iraq, it remains bleak” (Huffington Post). Few expect the Petraeus and Crocker updates to change many minds. Petraeus has hinted he may call for a reduction in troops (Guardian), though others suggest Bush will stand by his current strategy and that any drawdown would be symbolic. The Pentagon hopes the hearings will, at the very least, reframe the debate.
The ultimate question facing Petraeus and Crocker before Congress will be: “What now?” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) predicts the general will have no choice but to recommend a reduction in troops, primarily because the military can’t sustain (USA Today) the current pace of deployments. Others insist a precipitous withdrawal is unlikely, and would fuel an Iranian power surge in the region. “The war will continue through at least the remainder of the Bush presidency,” argue two American Enterprise Institute experts in the Weekly Standard. For that to produce results, however, politicians on both sides of the pond will need to compromise.