The Magazine

Of Senators and Soldiers

The soldiers think they can win. Some Senators lose their nerve.

Jul 16, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 41 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Richard Lugar of Indiana, George Voinovich of Ohio, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, and John Warner of Virginia have together served more than a century in the world's greatest deliberative body. Historians will remember their time in public office for Reagan's challenge to the Soviet Union, for the success of pro-growth economic policies, for welfare reform, for the reinvigoration of a constitutionalist approach to the courts, for the framing of a foreign policy for the post-9/11 world. None of these men played a leading role in any of these major developments. They have been followers of conventional opinion, not leaders.

Now they are following conventional wisdom again, in their stately way, in turning against the Iraq war. They would like an exit strategy, a respectable exit strategy, along the lines of the proposals of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. They praise and embrace that group's recommendations--ignoring all the evidence that those recommendations are neither feasible nor desirable, and in any case have often been overtaken by events. Lugar, in particular, seems upset that the war in Iraq is undermining our diplomatic efforts elsewhere in the Middle East. Domenici, last Thursday, focused on the failures of the Iraqi government. Neither speaks of the fact that, in Iraq, we are fighting al Qaeda. (Domenici seems not to have mentioned al Qaeda in a conference call Thursday; Lugar mentioned al Qaeda once in his 50-minute Senate floor speech.) Nor do they discuss the fact that we are fighting a proxy war in Iraq against Iran. Nor do they see that we have a strategic interest in changing the status quo ante in the Middle East. Such considerations seem not to enter even slightly into their calculations. They are pre-9/11 Republicans.

Friday's New York Times led with the news of Domen ici's endorsement of (partial, gradual, and unspecified in any of its details) withdrawal from Iraq. In striking contrast to the Domenici story was a report from Iraq on the same page by Michael Gordon. It was a fascinating account of how young American soldiers are executing Gen. David Petraeus's new strategy on the ground, and how they're fighting and defeating al Qaeda.

The protagonist of Gordon's story is a 31-year-old Army captain, Ben Richards. Richards commands Bronco Troop, First Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment. They're deployed in and around Baquba, the capital of Diyala Province, an area northeast of Baghdad that is a center of the fight against al Qaeda. The account of the efforts of Richards and his men to rally Sunni tribes in the area against a deeply entrenched al Qaeda enemy is encouraging. As Gordon explains,

[Al Qaeda] had a firm grip on the city, the provincial capital of Diyala, which Abu Musab al-Zarqawi made the center of his self-styled Islamic caliphate before he was killed in an airstrike near Baquba last year. . . . The militants' hold on the region was facilitated, senior American officers now acknowledge, by American commanders' decision to draw down forces in the province in 2005 in the hopes of shifting most of the responsibility for securing the region onto the Iraqis.

Now, working with his Iraqi partners, Capt. Richards is making real progress against the terrorists. When al Qaeda had controlled the area, it "raised funds by kidnapping local Iraqis, found accommodations by evicting some residents from their homes and killed with abandon when anyone got in their way, residents say. . . . 'They used religion as a ploy to get in and exploit people's passions,' said one [Iraqi], who gave his name as Haidar. 'They were Iraqis and other Arabs from Syria, Afghanistan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They started kicking people out of their houses and getting ransom from rich people. They would shoot people in front of their houses to scare the others.'"

Capt. Richards, following the lead of Gen. Petraeus's new counterinsurgency strategy, is routing the "insurgents." (Incidentally, now that even Sunni tribes are turning on al Qaeda, can we stop calling the enemy "insurgents"? Can't we just call them terrorists?) As Gordon reports, "Collaborations like the one with [residents] in Baquba are slowly beginning to emerge in other parts of Iraq." The key is the surge--and sustaining the surge: "Captain Richards's soldiers arrived in Buhritz [a neighborhood in Baquba] in mid-March as part of a battalion-sized operation. Unlike many earlier operations, the Americans showed up in force and did not quickly withdraw."

Obviously, we have a long way to go in Iraq. There are obstacles, in part posed by recalcitrant and incompetent elements in the Iraqi government. But the successes of the U.S. combat operations are undeniable: