Month after month, official Washington downplayed the trickle and then constant stream of bad news out of Iraq, content to advertise hopeful signs like free elections. But even this president finally had to face the bloody facts and draw the obvious conclusion: The coalition of the ever less willing in Iraq was losing the war. And to leave the conduct of this war to the same generals with the same minimal strategy would lead to the same defeat.
Something new was called for, anything new. So the old approach has been shelved, and the old generals eased aside or kicked upstairs. Their old assurances had long since ceased to assure. (Why one of them - George Casey - is being nominated for Army chief of staff mystifies. Why reward failure?)
A new commanding general now has been called in, complete with a new strategy and a new team of subordinates to carry it out. His approach is an open book, specifically the U.S. Army's new counter-insurgency (COIN) manual published just last month. The new commander - Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, Ph.D. - should know it well; he was the strategist responsible for putting it together.
The new manual lays out the challenge now facing American forces and our allies in Iraq, and how Gen. Petraeus proposes to respond to it: Clear and hold enemy strongholds. We've cleared them before, but neglected to hold them. The general does not propose to repeat that strategic error. His aim will be to isolate the enemy from popular support. He understands that not all the insurgents can or need be killed or captured to achieve that aim - so long as they are neutralized.
Already the first tentative but hopeful results of such a strategy are being reported in Baghdad, where leaders of Moktada al-Sadr's murderous Mahdi Army are being rounded up. Armed gangs are disappearing from the streets of Sadr City as they go into hiding. Meanwhile, Sunni terrorists try to kill as many innocent civilians as possible in hopes of keeping the sectarian violence going, the country ungovernable, and American public opinion demoralized.
As the debate over the war mounts this week, here is what may be the most relevant excerpt from the new counter-insurgency manual, with emphasis added: "Most enemies either do not try to defeat the United States with conventional operations or do not limit themselves to purely military means. They know that they cannot compete with U.S. forces on those terms. Instead, they try to exhaust U.S. national will, aiming to win by undermining and outlasting public support."