The US military mission in Iraq achieved several critical milestones recently, with a highly significant one imminent, passed on by Real Clear Politics.
The Washington Post commented today on the military achievements that have prompted Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to approve announced military draw down in Iraq from surge highs, with a period of “pause,” to consolidate and evaluate prior to further withdrawals. The WaPo characterizes Secretary Gates’s support for his military commanders as a “change of tack”:
After meeting in Baghdad with U.S. commander Gen. David H. Petraeus, Mr. Gates announced a change of tack. He said he agreed with Gen. Petraeus and other U.S. commanders that after the already-announced drawdown to 15 brigades and 130,000 troops by July, there should be "a brief period of consolidation and evaluation" before any further withdrawals are ordered. That means it's unlikely that the U.S. troop level will reach 100,000 by the time the next president takes office. But it also means that Mr. Gates is listening to his commanders and reacting to the actual situation in Iraq rather than insisting on a preconceived policy.
His judgment looks sound. The progress since last summer has been remarkable: In Baghdad, where a sectarian war seemed to be spiraling out of control a year ago, the number of attacks dropped 75 percent from June to last month. U.S. casualties since Oct. 1 are half the average for 2006, and the lowest for any similar period since the war began. But as Gen. Petraeus repeatedly has emphasized, the gains are fragile. It's not certain that the relative peace in and around Baghdad will hold as American troop levels come down. A pause to weigh the situation -- commanders are reportedly thinking of 30 to 90 days -- would help ensure that what now looks like an opportunity to stabilize Iraq would not be squandered, along with the American lives sacrificed for it.
Which then prompts the WaPo editors to ask what’s wrong with Democratic Presidential candidates, and why they aren’t keeping up with facts on the ground?
Thanks to Mr. Gates's readiness to adjust, it's more likely that President Bush's successor will inherit an Iraq that is moving slowly toward stability rather than spiraling into chaos. So it's worth asking why Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton remain so unwilling to alter their outdated and dogmatic views about the war. Both issued statements Monday denouncing Mr. Gates's statement and the proposed pause in withdrawals; both stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that the changed situation in Iraq requires a rethinking of their plans for the rapid withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops. As Mr. Gates has recognized, to mechanically yank U.S. forces from Iraq according to a timetable inspired by American domestic politics, just when the troops appear to be succeeding, would be foolhardy as well as dangerous.
Surely there’s little good explanation for Clinton and Obama so studiously ignoring our stunning, if belated, successes in Iraq. (You’d think they weren’t very happy about these turns of events.)
Things have so stabilized in Iraq, that it’s time to normalize and formalize the status of our military in Iraq, in the same way the US has done for a century, in places like Korea, Germany, Japan, Italy, or even France. In Germany, US forces remain deployed under the terms of a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), just as they did when I served in Germany from 1984-87, and in the 1970s, 1960’s, and 1950’s.
Now, Secretary Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declare in a Washington Post editorial that it’s time to forge a SOFA in Iraq. That’s what the US does when it deploys military forces in peacekeeping, stabilization, or under the terms of security and protection arrangements. It’s time, and it’s a sign of how dramatically things have changed:
Over the past year, we have seen that Iraqis are committed to affirming their own sovereignty. The Iraqi army and police are taking the lead in providing security over much of the country. Iraq is building relationships with other nations in the Middle East. The Iraqi people want to meet their own needs and control their own destiny. And they desire a more normal relationship with the United States.
Our troops and diplomats have made untold sacrifices to help put Iraq on the path to self-sufficiency. A crucial phase in this process will unfold in the coming months, when our ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, begins negotiating a basic framework for normalized relations with the Iraqi government -- to include what is known as a "status of forces" agreement. We encourage Congress and the public to support the efforts of our senior diplomats and military officers as they forge ahead with these talks -- which we believe are essential to a successful outcome in Iraq and, by extension, the vital interests and security of the United States.
We don’t form SOFAs when we’re still fighting a war. The US tends to arrange them after we’ve won.
UPDATE: Then there’s this analysis, from the always insightful Wretchard of The Belmont Club:
This measure is vital to institutionalizing the gains won by the Surge. Iraq has long been crippled by the defective, UN-designed "closed-party list" voting system, which created political parties based on sectarian affiliation. A UN website describes why it adopted this system. It had the advantage of being easy ("no census is required") and creating what in the UN view was an appropriate structure of political coalitions. The trouble was the system encouraged the very same fraction that took Iraq to the brink of civil war.
One of the key problems facing strategists of the Surge was to find a way to institutionalize the grassroots movement of the past year. Former insurgents would of course, be retrained and put under the discipline of the Army or Police. But what of the political leaders? The natural path was to encourage the leadership which emerged during the Surge to stand for office, which proved very difficult to do under the closed-party list system. They were dressed up with no place to go.
The impasse in Baghdad is partly the result of a logjam of sectarian interests. There are also a fair number of politicians, who because of the sectarian nature of the coalitions, are stooges of Teheran. A new election law could sweep the logjam away in a flood, with the stooges in the bargain. Electoral reform is supremely important for long term success. It is the linchpin of "reconciliation".
The new law is one of the most sweeping reforms pushed by the Bush administration and signals that Iraq's politicians finally, if grudgingly, may be ready for small steps toward reconciliation.
Passage of several pieces of legislation, along with a reduction in violence, were the primary goals of the U.S. troop increase that President Bush ordered early last year. Still pending and not likely to face positive action soon ...
The more reason to inform the American public of the logic behind electoral reform and why it is so vital. Iraqi and American lives have taken the country back from the brink of civil war and on the approaches to normalcy. But the last steps are the most important. This is where it all pays off.
Lest we ever forget the axiom, left to its own devices, the UN will always make things worse. This most recent Iraqi legislative accomplishment seeks to undo (yet more of) the harm the UN has wrought. (With the best of intentions, of course!)