Final Takeaway from General Petraeus’ Report

Despite some disagreement about the specific metrics cited, there really wasn’t much disagreement on the basic accuracy General David Petraeus’ report to Congress on post-surge conditions in Iraq. The important takeaways were…

  1. The surge has worked to turn Sunni communities against al-Qaida in Iraq. It is unlikely that the Sunnis by themselves would have had the means or the confidence to made this stand in the absence of direct and intense American support.
  2. The number of attacks nationwide is down from the peak reached at the beginning of this year, though still not below 2005 levels. The number of attacks in Baghdad, a focus area of the surge, is also down.
  3. How this all translates into either disarming or integrating Shia militias in the Southern part of Iraq is unclear.
The counter-point coming from Petraeus’ (sane) critics is that the progress is nice, but none of it matters if the national government can’t get its act together, a reaction eerily reminiscent of Howard Dean’s response of “well, I suppose it’s a good thing” when informed that Saddam Husein had been captured.
But the idea that a top-down national government, whether led by Nouri al-Maliki or Ahmed Chalabi or Jabar Gaffney or anyone else, was going to become the prime mover for reform in Iraq was flawed from the outset, an expression of a mistaken belief that good governance springs from the ability of correct-thinking elites to tap a reserve of magic powers, beyond the reach of the regular people, that can be used to whip a society into shape. That idea is as wrong for Iraq as it is for any other place. Democratic governments take their powers from the regular people, from trust they invest in the government.
It is true that the current national government of Iraq hasn’t done much earn the requisite trust, but especially after the experience of Saddam Husein, the people of Iraq were unlikely at the outset to give the benefit of the doubt to a remote national government. Instead, regular Iraqis, quite rationally, waited to see if the national government would help, hinder or be completely irrelevant to the local structures — the functioning provincial governments in the Kurdish north, the tribal sheiks in the Sunni provinces, and the clerics and militias in the southern Shi’ite areas — impacting their lives on a daily basis.
Whether you want to classify Iraq’s national government as a hindrance or irrelevant with respect to building-up the local quality of life in Iraq so far, coalition forces are now belatedly creating conditions where regular Iraqis, especially in the Sunni provinces, are ready to take more responsibility than ever before for rebuilding and defending their localities. That emphasis on ground-up reconstruction at the local level should have been the emphasis from the start. To say that local successes don’t matter — that for some reason it is a absolute necessity that the national government must come first in all things — is to say that the needs of regular people, and the branch of government that touches them most directly, matters less than the needs of the national-level political elite. I understand why the pols in Washington see the world in these terms, but not why most of the American people should accept them.

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16 years ago

I completely agree that ground up reconstruction is the key to success in Iraq, and that perhaps it should have been started sooner.
He touched on a good point in the post that the needs of the individual human is what should come first, not the goals of the political strategy of the Washington elite. America has always viewed life with great respect and helping other countries have the opportunities for a good life is one of our fundamentals. The fact that Americans have selfishly politicized this aspect of Iraq is only hindering public support and polarizing the country.

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