Losing the minds of the Democrats

Arthur Herman:

"It is best if an enemy nation comes and surrenders of its own accord."

--Du You (735-812)

To the student of counterinsurgency warfare, the war in Iraq has reached a critical but dismally familiar stage.

On the one hand, events in that country have taken a more hopeful direction in recent months. Operations in the city of Najaf in January presaged a more effective burden-sharing between American and Iraqi troops than in the past. The opening moves of the so-called surge in Baghdad, involving increased American patrols and the steady addition of more than 21,000 ground troops, have begun to sweep Shiite militias from the streets, while their leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, has gone to ground. Above all, the appointment of Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the author of the U.S. Army's latest counterinsurgency field manual, as commander of American ground forces in Iraq bespeaks the Pentagon's conviction that what we need to confront the Iraq insurgency is not more high-tech firepower but the time-tested methods of unconventional or "fourth generation" warfare.

In Washington, on the other hand, among the nation's political class, the growing consensus is that the war in Iraq is not only not winnable but as good as lost--Rep. Henry Waxman of California, for one, has proclaimed that the war is lost. Politicians who initially backed the effort, like Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton and Joseph Biden, and Republican Reps. Walter Jones and Tom Davis, have been busily backing away or out, insisting that Iraq has descended into civil war and that Americans are helpless to shape events militarily. A growing number, like Rep. John Murtha, even suggest that the American presence is making matters worse. The Democratic Party has devoted much internal discussion to whether and how to restrict the President's ability to carry out even the present counterinsurgency effort.

In short, if the battle for the hearts and minds of Iraqis still continues and is showing signs of improvement, the battle for the hearts and minds of Congress, or at least of the Democratic majority, seems to be all but over. In the meantime, still more adamant on the subject are many of our best-known pundits and media commentators. According to Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who speaks for many, Iraq "is so broken it can't even have a proper civil war," and America is therefore now left with but a single option: "how we might disengage with the least damage possible." To the left of Mr. Friedman and his ilk are the strident and often openly anti-American voices of organizations like MoveOn.org.

It is indeed striking that war critics like Sens. Harry Reid and Joseph Biden, who in 2005 were calling on the Pentagon to mount a proper counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, and to send enough troops to make it happen, should now be seeking ways to revoke legislative authority for that very operation. Exactly why they should have changed their minds on the issue is not obvious, although they and their colleagues do claim to be expressing not only their own judgment but the opinions and sentiments of the American people at large. If recent polls are to be trusted, however, these politicians may well turn out be wrong about popular sentiment. And if past history and our current experience in Iraq are any guide, they are certainly wrong about the war on the ground.

Herman gives a good history of counterinsurgency warfare and notes how failure to win the battle on the home front can be the decisive factor. He describes how the French started winning the war in Algeria as it lost political support at come which proved to be the crucial factor. Vietnam is another case in point. Iraq will probably join in this sorry history of the failure of political will to support a winning hand.


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