Month after month, official Washington downplayed the trickle and then constant stream of bad news out of Iraq, content to advertise hopeful signs like free elections. But even this president finally had to face the bloody facts and draw the obvious conclusion: The coalition of the ever less willing in Iraq was losing the war. And to leave the conduct of this war to the same generals with the same minimal strategy would lead to the same defeat.
Something new was called for, anything new. So the old approach has been shelved, and the old generals eased aside or kicked upstairs. Their old assurances had long since ceased to assure. (Why one of them George Casey is being nominated for Army chief of staff mystifies. Why reward failure?)
A new commanding general now has been called in, complete with a new strategy and a new team of subordinates to carry it out. His approach is an open book, specifically the U.S. Army's new counter-insurgency (COIN) manual published just last month. The new commander Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, Ph.D. should know it well; he was the strategist responsible for putting it together.
The new manual lays out the challenge now facing American forces and our allies in Iraq, and how Gen. Petraeus proposes to respond to it: Clear and hold enemy strongholds. We've cleared them before, but neglected to hold them. The general does not propose to repeat that strategic error. His aim will be to isolate the enemy from popular support. He understands that not all the insurgents can or need be killed or captured to achieve that aim so long as they are neutralized.
Already the first tentative but hopeful results of such a strategy are being reported in Baghdad, where leaders of Moktada al-Sadr's murderous Mahdi Army are being rounded up. Armed gangs are disappearing from the streets of Sadr City as they go into hiding. Meanwhile, Sunni terrorists try to kill as many innocent civilians as possible in hopes of keeping the sectarian violence going, the country ungovernable, and American public opinion demoralized.
As the debate over the war mounts this week, here is what may be the most relevant excerpt from the new counter-insurgency manual, with emphasis added:
"Most enemies either do not try to defeat the United States with conventional operations or do not limit themselves to purely military means. They know that they cannot compete with U.S. forces on those terms. Instead, they try to exhaust U.S. national will, aiming to win by undermining and outlasting public support."
Militarily, the new strategy may work, but only if given time, patience and support. But what about politically? None of the lessons from this new manual will avail if the war isn't won on the decisive front in any such conflict: the home front. That is where another war was lost, the one in Vietnam.
In the long shadow of that defeat, it became easy to forget that the now defunct Republic of Vietnam was holding its own, thanks to American air and logistical support, until Congress pulled the props out from under the Vietnamese. The same impulse can be seen in today's demands that American troops be withdrawn from Iraq, or at least not reinforced.
To quote General Petraeus' manual again, our enemy will "try to exhaust U.S. national will, aiming to win by undermining and outlasting public support."
A number of resolutions withdrawing support from the war are being readied in Congress, with Senators Carl Levin and Joe Biden leading the push to oppose the new strategy and the additional troops it requires. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will be right behind them, with an eye on next year's presidential election.
Vermont's Patrick Leahy would simply cut off funds for the troops. And he knows what effect that would have, for he cites the outcome in Vietnam as the example to follow: "This is the only way we stopped Vietnam … when we finally had a vote in April 1975, a key vote on the power of the purse, that's what stopped it." And sealed freedom's fate in Vietnam. Not to mention Laos and the killing fields of Cambodia.
Unless the home front stands united, no new general in Iraq, even one with a new strategy that has begun to produce results, will be able to stave off defeat. And with defeat would come disastrous consequences throughout that volatile part of the world and beyond.
Divided we fall.