I've been very disappointed in general in the way that Obama's campaign has downplayed the Iraq War. Not only because it's a winning issue and a good way to distinguish himself clearly from McCain on foreign policy. But because this war is the greatest strategic disaster in the history of American foreign policy (so far, if McCain gets elected).
Patrick Cockburn in Iraq: Violence is down – but not because of America's 'surge'The Independent 09/14/08 reviews the reasons for the reduction in violence in Iraq since 2007. Stress should be on reduction, because conditions are still very violent there. The recent disturbances in Bolivia that threaten to set off a civil war there are like routine daily occurrences in Iraq. Cockburn says bluntly, "Ongoing violence is down, but Iraq is still the most dangerous country in the world." His reasons for what improvement there has been, an improvement that McCain attributes exclusively to The Surge, include:
The Shi'a won the sectarian war in Baghdad. They didn't drive the Sunnis out of the city altogether. But the neighborhoods are more homogeneous religiously.
A large number of Iraqis (4.7 million) are refugees, both in and out of the country, having left their homes to get away from the violence. Both that and the results of the sectarian war in Baghdad effectively means there are not as many people left to kill.
Sunni insurgent leaders shifted their focus from fighting Americans to fighting Salafi extremists ("Al Qa'ida in Iraq", or AQI). This is one factor that the Americans did not initiate but did play a key role in encouraging. The US has been paying former Sunni insurgent groups to fight AQI instead of the US. This bribery worked in the short run, at the expense of strengthening local warlords and militias and thus making national unification even more difficult. Presumably, this is much of what Cockburn has in mind when he writes, "General Petraeus has had a measure of success in Iraq less because of his military skills than because he was one of the few American leaders to have some understanding of Iraqi politics."
Iran backs the Shi'a government of Iraq under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Iran also persuaded nationalist Shi'a militant Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army (JAM) to stand down on fight Americans. For now. "It is very noticeable," Cockburn writes, that in recent weeks the US has largely ceased its criticism of Iran." A state of affairs he attributes in part to "an implicit recognition that US security in Iraq is highly dependant on Iranian actions". That's also an encouraging sign for US policy, and I hope it continues in that vein.
Cockburn notes the grim oddity of current discussion and reporting on the war in the United States:
In Mosul, Iraq's northern capital and third largest city, with a population of 1.8 million, the government was trumpeting its success only a few months ago. It said it had succeeded in driving al-Qa'ida from the city, while the US said the number of attacks had fallen from 130 a week to 30 a week in July. But today they are back up to between 60 and 70 a week. Two weeks ago, insurgents came close to killing Major-General Riyadh Jalal Tawfiq in Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, with a roadside bomb.
The perception in the US that the tide has turned in Iraq is in part because of a change in the attitude of the foreign, largely American, media. The war in Iraq has now been going on for five years, longer than the First World War, and the world is bored with it. US television networks maintain expensive bureaux in Baghdad, but little of what they produce gets on the air. When it does, viewers turn off. US newspaper bureaux are being cut in size. The result of all this is that the American voter hears less of violence in Iraq and can suppose that America's military adventure there is finally coming good. [my emphasis]
The implication of Cockburn's analysis is that if McCain becomes President and takes seriously his own rhetoric about the magic results of The Surge, that could not only lead him to actions that would inflame anti-American sentiment in Iraq but to adopt reckless policies in Afghanistan.
It's also important to note that part of the short-term reduction in violence has also been due to the effectiveness of death squads who have been assassinating resistance leaders, a program modeled on the infamous Phoenix program in the Vietnam War. Tom Hayden writes about the Iraqi death squads in Woodward book reveals extra-judicial killings in IraqSan Francisco Chronicle 09/15/08:
The silence so far toward Bob Woodward's reporting of secret extra-judicial killings by American forces in Iraq shows a worrisome collapse of public debate about the war.
During the Vietnam War, by contrast, revelations about torture, tiger cages and the Phoenix program were headline news that sent protesters into the streets and produced congressional hearings. William Colby, then leading pacification efforts in Vietnam, testified that the Phoenix program killed 20,587 Vietcong "suspects," while Sen. William Fulbright suggested it meant indiscriminate killings of anyone resisting the U.S. and Saigon governments. ...
Now the Woodward book reports a series of top secret special operations, launched in May 2006, to "locate, target, and kill key individuals in extremist groups," a campaign that may have been the greatest factor in reducing the violence in Iraq. President Bush told Woodward that the secret program was "awesome." Derek Harvey, the top intelligence adviser to Petraeus on the secret operations, told Woodward that the "lightning quick" assaults gave him "orgasms.".