The worst possible outcome of next week's congressional hearings on Iraq -- already dubbed "Petraeus Week" after Gen. David Petraeus's dramatically anticipated testimony on whether "the surge" is working in Iraq -- would be a political haggle over whether the surge is working in Iraq.
Let's just say the surge -- defined as a military plan to enhance security in targeted sections of Iraq -- is working. As even The Washington Post owned up, "If there is one indisputable truth regarding the current offensive, it is this: When large numbers of U.S. troops are funneled into areas, security improves." No one needs four years at West Point or even two hours watching "Battleground" to figure that out. The cavalry rides in, things get better.
But there are other, more significant questions to hash out: namely, whether the strategy behind the surge still makes national security sense for the United States. That is, should a functioning state of Iraq -- the ultimate goal of the surge (aside from the president's mirage-like vision of Iraq as a "friend" and "ally") -- remain the overriding objective of U.S. foreign policy?
I have long argued no, and not only because majority-Shiite Iraq is likely to end up a client-state of Shiite Iran, although that's a huge reason. There's also the fact that our gargantuan efforts to build an Iraqi society that never before existed do nothing whatsoever to ward off jihadist state threats -- Iran, for instance -- in the wider region.
This is the deepest chink in the president's Iraqi-centric policy. As we minutely focus on Iraq, sect by sect, tribe by tribe, and now, literally, retina by retina, we have lost sight of the big bad world beyond, not to mention what's in it for us. And "tunnel vision" doesn't begin to describe the microscopic range of debate we can expect between proponents of "surge" and "withdrawal."
In a recent interview, Michael Ledeen, author of the new book, "The Iranian Time Bomb" (Truman Talley Books) identifies the main problem with the conventional wisdom: "What drives me crazy is that even our most brilliant analysts -- among whom I count some very close friends -- still aren't talking about the regional war. They still talk about Iraq alone. And down that road only misery lies." As for Congress, he adds: "They're debating the wrong question. We have to win the war, but the real war, not the battle for Iraq. And what is that "real war"?
Jed Babbin, author of the book, "In the Words of Our Enemies" (Regnery Publishing), has written this formulation: "Let's be very clear: whether Iraq becomes a democracy is not determinative of our success or defeat in this war.
Iraq is only one campaign in the war against the nations that sponsor terrorism. Victory isn't an Iraq that can defend and govern itself. Victory is defined as the end of state sponsorship of Islamic terrorism, which means forcing Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and others out of that business. Nothing more is needed, and nothing less will defeat an existential threat to America."
Daniel Pipes writes in terms of losing the occupation but winning the war by keeping U.S. troops in Iraq, but removing them from the deadly cities -- perhaps to a base in Kurdistan, I would add, the closest thing to democracy in Mesopotamia -- "to influence developments in the world's most volatile theater." These include, Pipes writes, containing Iran and Syria; assuring the flow of oil; fighting international terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda.
Such a proposition is always undone by the word "bloodbath," as though Americans are eternally obligated to serve as buffers between the warring Islamic tribes of Iraq -- which is both cracked and a good way to tie up American forces for the next several centuries.
"Peace in Iraq has to be built on a Shiite-Sunni consensus, not a constant balancing act by us," Thomas Friedman writes. This begs the question: Should we stand on one foot until Iraq finds equilibrium? Surge architect Frederick Kagan apparently thinks so. The United States, he writes, should continue to serve as "the bridge between Sunni and Shia" in Iraq. Why? "If we remove this bridge now, it is unlikely that the Iraqis will be able to continue on a path to real reconciliation."
Maybe the United States needs to get out of the real reconciliation business, and fast. There's a world of trouble outside Iraq. At the very least, it's debatable whether building bridges between Sunnis and Shiites inside Iraq should remain American Priority No. 1. So let's debate it.