At a Pentagon press conference last week, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, explained the U.S. strategy there.
Its ultimate objective is not to inflict a military defeat on the Sunni insurgency, the Mahdi Army, al-Qaida in Iraq or any other militia or terrorist organization. In fact, the objective of U.S. military involvement in Iraq is not a military objective at all. It is a political one.
"The focus of Multinational Force Iraq is, of course, on working with our Iraqi counterparts to help improve security for the people of Iraq in order to give Iraqi leaders the time and space they need to come to grips with the tough political issues that must be resolved," said Petraeus. "Resolution of these issues is the key to the achievement of reconciliation among the various ethnic and sectarian groups, political parties and leaders in order to achieve a lasting solution to Iraq's problems."
Americans are being sent to fight and die in Iraq, in other words, in the hope that the Iraqi parliament will enact certain reforms. Two of the most significant, and, in theory at least, immediately achievable of these reforms are: a law to provide for the equitable development and distribution of Iraq's oil wealth, which is mostly in the Shiite and Kurdish regions of the country, and a law to allow a greater number of former Baath Party members to participate in Iraqi government.
The hypothesis behind this strategy is that legislative reforms such as these will inspire Sunni and Shiite factions now seeking to advance their interests through violence to give up violence and advance their interests through peaceful politics, instead.
Now, this hypothesis may be wrong. Sunni and Shiite factions might continue fighting even if the Iraqi parliament enacts the envisioned reforms. But despite all the rhetorical warring among the domestic factions here in Washington, D.C., both major political parties have essentially agreed to assume that the basic hypothesis behind the U.S. strategy is correct. The debate is not about whether the Iraqi government needs to achieve political "benchmarks" (including the two noted above) if there is to be any hope of peace in that country, it is about how our military ought to be used to help Iraq achieve these benchmarks.
Petraeus explained President Bush's chosen tactic: using our military to suppress violence to give Iraq's government time to make the reforms. This tactic rests on the additional hypothesis that the Iraqi government truly wants to make the reforms.
The tactic proposed by congressional Democrats is to threaten the withdrawal of U.S. troops if the Iraqi government does not meet deadlines for achieving the reforms. This tactic rests on the additional hypothesis that the Iraqi government does not truly want to make the reforms.
An early analysis of how the president's tactic is working yields two conclusions: Americans are dying in greater numbers for it, and Iraqi politicians are not paying us back with the political progress this American sacrifice demands.
In an April 20 speech in Grand Rapids, Mich., President Bush somberly conceded that more U.S. troops are dying as a result of his tactic. "Since the security operation began, we have seen some of the highest casualty levels of the war," he said. "And as the number of troops in Baghdad grows and operations move into even more dangerous neighborhoods, we can expect to see the pattern to continue." April was the sixth-deadliest month in a four-year war.
Meanwhile, in February the Iraqi cabinet approved a draft oil reform law and in March Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki and President Jalal Talabani announced a draft de-Baathification reform. Neither proposal has gone anywhere in the Iraqi parliament, however. The Kurdish Regional Government opposes the proposed oil law, and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the largest single party in Iraq's parliament, opposes the proposed de-Baathification reform.
Despite the impasse, the Iraqi parliament is planning a summer vacation, lasting through July and August.
The prospect of a long, hot summer with American soldiers dying in escalating numbers in Iraq while Iraqi legislators enjoy an extended vacation sent Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Baghdad last month. He warned Prime Minister Maliki and other Iraqi leaders that the U.S. commitment in Iraq is not "open-ended," and that the de-Baathification and oil reforms must pass before Iraq's parliament takes a vacation.
Gates got no commitment from the Iraqis.
If the "surge" strategy fails, it will not be because Democrats in Congress blocked it. It will not be because some terrorist group or insurgency defeated the U.S. military. It will be because elected members of the Iraqi parliament failed to live up to President Bush's expectations.