Honest Democrats should admit that they are in a predicament: The electoral interests of their party are at odds with the interests of the country in Iraq. If the surge fails, the Democrats stand to gain enormously in 2008. A Republican could try to depict himself as the candidate best able to manage retreat from Mesopotamia, but such a Nixonian approach, given how lamely the Bush administration has handled much of the war, doesn't seem compelling. On the other hand, if the surge works, and the Sunni insurgency and sectarian strife no longer convulse Iraqi society, the odds of Senator John McCain--or another Republican--succeeding George W. Bush go up considerably. The entire Democratic field, however, could end up looking wrong, faint-hearted, and politically reckless.
We highlight this Democratic contradiction since the party's character is being put to the test, as we see whether General David Petraeus's counterinsurgency tactics, which will seriously kick into gear in June, can rescue Baghdad and Anbar and Diyala provinces from the precipice. We don't know if General Petraeus at this late date can reverse the bloody dynamic that has developed in the Iraqi Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish communities. But militarily the United States is finally waging a counterinsurgency that makes sense: We are focusing our efforts on securing Iraqi lives and property. Incrementally, in many quarters of Baghdad, daily life for Iraqis appears to be getting better.
And politically, Iraq is coming alive again. A Shiite-led Iraqi democracy is taking root--an astonishing achievement given the concerted efforts of the Iraqi Sunnis, and the surrounding Sunni Arab states, to attack and delegitimize the new Iraq. The country's obstreperous, stubborn, highly nationalist, Shiite prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, appears increasingly to be a man of mettle and courage. Slowly but surely, he is distancing himself from the clerical scion, Moktada al-Sadr, the overlord of the Sunni-shooting Mahdi Army. Maliki is so far holding his ground after the resignation of Sadr's men in his government.
This distancing was inevitable once the Americans reversed the disastrous tactics of former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld and General John Abizaid, which had allowed Sadr and his allies to become the only defenders of Baghdad's Shiites against the Sunni insurgents and holy warriors. Maliki and Sadr are not natural allies intellectually or temperamentally; Maliki's diverse and fractious Dawa party is of a different social milieu from the uneducated young men who give Sadr power. Although Sadr will surely continue to have a significant political following (his family name alone ensures that), his base of support even within Baghdad's Shiite slum, Sadr City, is not guaranteed, provided the central government can bring security and minimal economic opportunity. There are many reasons Sadr has not rallied his men against the American surge, which has already penetrated deeply into Sadr City with minimal resistance. One of those reasons is that Sadr would not be popular with many of the area's denizens if he did.
Since 2005, Sadr's calls for political demonstrations against the Americans have not been resounding successes among the Shiites. Although this may be news to Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who believes all is lost in Iraq, Sadr increasingly shows the anxiety of a pol who is nervous about his base, his allies, and his elected Shiite competitors. Not that long ago, many--perhaps most--Iraqis thought that the United States would soon abandon Iraq. President Bush's decision to back the surge has altered this perception, in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. The effect of this on Iraq's politics has been enormously beneficial. The retreat of Sadr, the growing Sunni tribal unease, if not outright conflict, with al Qaeda in Anbar, and the growing self-confidence of Maliki are all, in part, results of President Bush's decision.
Prime Minister Maliki actually appears to be leading his Dawa party, an awkward, tense collection of deeply patriotic, semi-Westernized Shiite activists, into an embrace of parliamentary democracy. Although not a mass movement, the Dawa has prestige among the Shiites: It was the first organized expression of a Shiite political consciousness and was born, in part, from the mind of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (1935-1980), the greatest of Iraq's modern clerics and the font of the Sadr family's continuing charisma. If the Dawa embraces democracy, its commitment, along with that of senior clerics in Najaf led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, will likely ensure a lasting Shiite commitment to democracy--provided Iraq's current leading men aren't destroyed in an all-out sectarian war, a scenario that seems likely only if the Americans hastily withdraw from Iraq.
And Senator Reid should take note: As a Shiite-led democracy grows, the calls for an American withdrawal will increase. Which is fine. Iraqi nationalism is vibrant among the Shiites, especially those who are religious. And democracy in Iraq, as elsewhere in the Muslim Middle East, is unlikely to be particularly affectionate toward the United States. Iraqi democracy is much more likely to free American soldiers to go home than is chaos in Mesopotamia.
Critics of the surge often underscore the absence of a clearly defined post-surge political strategy. Echoing Rumsfeld and Abizaid, these critics believe that only a "political solution"--that is, Shiite and Kurdish concessions to the once-dominant Sunni minority--can solve Iraq's trauma. The Bush administration has largely been in agreement with this view, following a strategy since 2004 of trying to placate the Sunnis.
It hasn't worked. In all probability, it could not. Certainly an approach that centers on de-de-Baathification is destined to fail since the vast majority of Iraq's Shiites, and probably Kurds, too, oppose any deal that would allow the Sunni Baathist elite back into government. And de-de-Baathification is not about letting Sunni Arab teachers, engineers, and nurses back into the government job market. It's about the Baathist Sunni elite getting the power and prestige of senior positions, especially in the military and security services. If we really want Iraq to succeed in the long term, we will stop pushing this idea. Onetime totalitarian societies that more thoroughly purge despotic party members have done much better than those that allow the old guard to stay on (think Russia). Grand Ayatollah Sistani is right about this; the State Department and the CIA are wrong.
The Sunni insurgency will likely cease when the Sunnis, who have been addicted to power and the perception of the Shiites as a God-ordained underclass, know in their hearts that they cannot win against the Shiites, that continued fighting will only make their situation worse. Thanks in part to the ferocity of vengeful Shiite militias, we are getting there. And the growing realization in Iraq, and among Western oil companies, that substantial oil deposits exist in the Sunni Arab zone could prove helpful in assuaging Sunni fears about starving in the new Iraq. Even for Iraqi Sunnis, the signs for a better future are increasing. A livable democratic arrangement is there if Sunni Arabs choose to take it. One thing ought to be clear: Without President Bush's surge, the only thing Iraq's Sunnis can look forward to is war, death, and exile. If there are potentially influential moderates among Iraq's Sunni Arabs, the "surge" is their last chance to change the rejectionist temperament and tactics of the community.
So the surge deserves to be supported. This is not the time for talk of timetables for withdrawal--much less talk of a war that is lost. It isn't inconsistent to scorch Bush for his failures--and still to argue that the American blood we will spill in Iraq in the surge is worth the possibility of success. Do thoughtful Democrats really believe that the Middle East, America's long fight against Sunni jihadism, and our standing in the world against potential aggressors and bullies will be improved by a precipitous and mandated departure from Mesopotamia? The Democratic party is beginning to sound like an echo chamber for Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser for the most inept and calamitous Democratic administration of modern times.
We, too, have benchmarks for Iraq. The surge needs to show real progress in providing security by the beginning of 2008. American and Iraqi forces in Baghdad will have to figure out a way to diminish significantly the number and lethality of Sunni suicide bombers. Given the topography of Baghdad, the possible routes of attack against the capital's Shiite denizens, and the common traits of Iraq's Arabs, this will be difficult. If we and the Iraqis cannot do this, then the radicalization of the Shiites will continue, and it will be only a question of time before the Shiite community collectively decides that the Sunnis as a group are beyond the pale, and a countrywide war of religious cleansing will become likely.
If the U.S. military can change the reality and spirit of Baghdad, the rest of Iraq will change too. Contrary to the despair of so many, internal Iraqi politics will probably be the easiest part of this campaign. In the next few months, of course, things could go to hell. One suicide bomber killing the right Shiite VIPs could threaten all. Yet with Petraeus, Maliki, and Sistani in charge, things may work out. If they do, we can only hope that by the time they do, the leadership of the Democratic party will have ceased to have anything in common with those Sunni Arabs who have always wanted the new Iraq to fail.
--Reuel Marc Gerecht, for the Editors