The Magazine

The Turn

Defeatists in retreat.

Aug 13, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 45 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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That's good, since progress on the ground in Iraq is likely to continue. It can't be taken for granted, given the nature of a war against a ruthless and adaptable enemy. Still, one British general--no cheerleader for our conduct of the war in the past--told me in Baghdad last week, "It's getting better--and I don't see why it shouldn't continue to do so." And, despite the mainstream media, reports of that progress should continue to seep into the American public's consciousness. "This war is lost," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid stated without qualification a few months ago, adding that it required "blind hope, blind trust" to believe in progress of any sort. But Reid is now in the position of holding blindly to his embrace of defeat. He has to deny facts in order to sustain his bleak judgment.

This denial will likely get more and more difficult. After all, civilian deaths in Baghdad are decreasing, and al Qaeda's networks and safe havens are being systematically disrupted. In Anbar, and now in Diyala, a bottom-up reconciliation is moving ahead as tribal sheikhs have turned against al Qaeda and are siding with American troops and Iraqi Security Forces. Ramadi, once among the most dangerous cities in Iraq, is now dramatically safer--our group walked through its downtown last week without body armor (though, of course, accompanied by several well-armed American soldiers).

As Michael E. O'Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack put it in their New York Times op-ed on July 30,

Viewed from Iraq, where we just spent eight days meeting with American and Iraqi military and civilian personnel, the political debate in Washington is surreal. . . . Here is the most important thing Americans need to understand: We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms. As two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration's miserable handling of Iraq, we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily "victory" but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with.

What's more, the public debate will move from a referendum on Bush's conduct of the war over the past four years to a discussion of the choices ahead, as Gen. Petraeus's testimony in September draws near. The public will finally have to consider seriously the implications of giving up on Iraq, as opposed to supporting the continued prosecution of a war we might well win. This debate should bring home to nervous Republicans in particular the truth that panicked abandonment of the war effort is the worst gambit available to them (to say nothing of the most dishonorable). Meanwhile, Democrats, who have been pandering to their antiwar base, will increasingly see that they have--as the third-ranking Democrat in the House, James Clyburn, acknowledged last week--"a problem." If Petraeus reports progress, Clyburn acknowledged, then "I think there would be enough support" among moderate Democrats "to want to stay the course, and if the Republicans were to stay united as they have been, then it would be a problem for us."

So here is where we are: In terms of U.S. national interests--and in terms of its own political well-being--the Republican party faces a moment when, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, honor points the path of duty, and the right judgment of the facts reinforces the dictates of honor. General Petraeus will deliver the facts in September. If Republicans can keep their nerve under media and elite assault, then they will have the honor of following the path of both duty and the right judgment of the facts. I suspect all will come out well. Americans can sometimes be impatient and short-sighted. But when a choice is clearly presented, they tend to reject the path of defeat and dishonor.

--William Kristol