Sunday, March 01, 2009

Bring on the realists, part II: Gates on 'victory' in Iraq

After years of robotic insistence by the Bush Administration and its surrogates on 'victory' in Iraq, today Robert Gates gave us this on Meet the Press today:
MR. GREGORY: When the United States finally leaves Iraq, will it have achieved victory?

SEC'Y GATES: I think that we have--as I've said, I think we have, have had a significant success on the military side. There is still--the political side is still a work in progress in Iraq. And frankly, I think before you start using terms like "won" or "lost" or "victory" or "defeat," those are the kinds of things that I think historians have to, have to judge. But I think that from the standpoint of the military mission we will have enjoyed significant success.

MR. GREGORY: Is it fair to say that when the U.S. leaves President Obama will not be able to declare either victory or defeat, that it'll be something of a muddle?

SEC'Y GATES: The question is, what kind of position is Iraq in at the time that we pull out? If Iraq is basically stable, if the level of violence remains at the relatively low levels that it is now, if they have had national elections, if they are an ally of the United States, I would call that a substantial success.

Compare Obama last April, pushing Ryan Crocker toward an attainable definition of success in Iraq last April:

And, see, the problem I have is if the definition of success is so high, no traces of Al Qaida and no possibility of reconstitution, a highly-effective Iraqi government, a Democratic multiethnic, multi- sectarian functioning democracy, no Iranian influence, at least not of the kind that we don't like, then that portends the possibility of us staying for 20 or 30 years.

If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there's not, you know, huge outbreaks of violence, there's still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it's not a threat to its neighbors and it's not an Al Qaida base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe, and that, I think, is what everybody here on this committee has been trying to drive at, and we haven't been able to get as clear of an answer as we would like.

And now contrast John McCain, in the September 26 debate:
This strategy has succeeded. And we are winning in Iraq. And we will come home with victory and with honor. And that withdrawal is the result of every counterinsurgency that succeeds.

And I want to tell you that now that we will succeed and our troops will come home, and not in defeat, that we will see a stable ally in the region and a fledgling democracy....

And thanks to this great general, David Petraeus, and the troops who serve under him, they have succeeded. And we are winning in Iraq, and we will come home. And we will come home as we have when we have won other wars and not in defeat.
This is not to denigrate McCain's commitment to staving off failure in Iraq -- a commitment on which he staked his political future -- or his intrepid and lonely support of the surge in early 2007. That was a call and a commitment that tapped McCain's strengths. Gates, in fact, shares that commitment, insofar as he has said that failure in Iraq would have catastrophic consequences. But when it came to envisioning an endgame and devising an exit strategy, or balancing the U.S. commitment in Iraq with the demands in Afghanistan and the military's overall capabilities,, McCain lacked the grasp of messy reality evinced by Gates and Obama above. As Joe Klein recalls today:
Actually, the path McCain wanted to formulate, with Scheunemann's assistance, was to establish permanent--100-year--US military bases in Iraq. That path, and the continual comparison of Iraq to South Korea, Germany and Japan, was always absurd. It was dismissed out of hand by the Iraqis last summer when Nuri al-Maliki came out in support of Obama's general timetable, which took a big issue that McCain hoped to exploit off the table in the presidential campaign.
The U.S. and the world are in deep trouble today. But we can still offer up a thanksgiving prayer that the realists are in charge.

Read Bring Bring on the realists, part I

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