Democratic Party opponents of the Iraq War are now deeply invested in a withdrawal strategy. They argue, as Harry Reid has phrased it, that the war is lost. But there are three inconvenient truths...
First, one of the principal purposes of the surge is to persuade the Iraqi population that we are going to stay in their neighborhoods until the Iraqi army and police can take over and bring an end to violence. Only when they have confidence that we will not abandon them to the terrorists will Iraqis come forward—as they now appear to be doing—with information about who among them are the terrorists, militia members and other killers, and where they can be found.
Accordingly, efforts to force the withdrawal of our troops at a time certain undermine this policy and the work and bravery of our soldiers. They cause Iraqis to doubt our promises of long term support, and weaken their incentive to assist us with intelligence. Timetables, then, and pressing for a quick withdrawal, become a self-fulfilling prophesy. In other words, if the surge fails, President Bush will not be the only politician who takes the blame.
Second, although Senator Reid and other war opponents can glibly claim that there is no hope that an independent Iraq can survive, there is one group that is truly expert on that question, and they clearly don't believe it. That group consists of the Iraqis who are now in the Iraqi government—from Prime Minister al-Maliki on down—who risk their lives and the lives of their families every day that they serve. They are Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, and all of them are targets of the insurgency and the terrorists of al Qaeda. What motive could these dedicated Iraqis possibly have to place themselves in such a position unless they believe that they can keep the country together and in the end produce a peaceful and unified state?
When we hear war opponents expound on the fact that the enmity between Shiites and Sunnis goes back a thousand years, and that it can't possibly be resolved by the United States in any reasonable period of time, we should think of the Sunnis and Shiites in the Iraqi government today, and whether they think this is a persuasive argument. If they did, they would have been gone long ago—now in Iran or Syria—trying to start their new lives. But they're not—they're in Baghdad—a completely irrational act unless they believe that this historic religious rivalry can be controlled and subdued. It is a wildly arrogant idea that we can tell them that their history cannot be overcome.
Finally, if—as seems apparent now—the surge is succeeding, opponents of the war are going to be hard-pressed to make the case for abandoning Iraq, even if there is no Shi'ite-Sunni political settlement in sight. The inconvenient truth here is that, apart from the irreconcilable Left, the American people's support for withdrawal has been based on an assessment that we were losing the war. If that no longer seems true, support for withdrawal will melt away. The Democratic leaders know this; that's why they made a concerted effort last week to get a vote on withdrawal in July. September, which will likely see a favorable report by General Petraeus, will be too late. Claims that the inability of the Iraqis to reach a political settlement is a reason for us to leave will ring a bit hollow in the face of a possible military success. After all, the American people have noticed that our Congress, unthreatened by anything more serious than an upcoming election, couldn't pass an immigration bill, can't eliminate earmarks or adopt ethics rules, and can't agree on energy legislation when gasoline is $3.50 a gallon. Politicians, they know, will be politicians, but that doesn't mean we should hand our enemies a victory instead of a defeat.
Nevertheless, because weakening the will of the American people is the only way that al-Qaeda and our other opponents in Iraq can hope to win, between now and September we will see an all-out effort to inflict heavy casualties on our troops and on Iraqi civilians. Unfortunately, this can be a winning strategy. If we are unprepared for it, a bad August and early September could still lead to a collapse in public support that would even sweep congressional Republicans with it. We should not forget that the North Vietnamese Tet offensive of 1968—although it resulted ultimately in a military defeat for the North—became a turning point in the war because it destroyed the American public's belief in our ultimate military success. A series of spectacular and dramatic attacks could do the same for our enemies in Iraq. They know that, and we should expect them to try.
But if these attacks do not occur—or if they do and are quickly quelled—the success of the surge will be an inconvenient political truth that many in the Democratic party will not easily survive.
Peter J. Wallison is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was White House counsel for Ronald Reagan.