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Petraeus' Credibility

Operation Kabuki?

by WILLIAM S. LIND

September approaches, and with it the supposed watershed in the Iraq war that General David Petraeus’ report to Congress will represent. In reality, the report will make little difference in what the Democratically-controlled Congress does, because it has already decided what it will do, namely pretend to try to end the war while actually ensuring its continuation through the 2008 elections. That strategy seems to offer the best promise of electing more Democrats.

Nonetheless, much of the country eagerly wants to hear what General Petraeus has to say. What he says about the progress of the war in Iraq, however, is a secondary question. The primary question is, how credible is his report? Will it be a real military analysis, honest and forthright, or will it just be more kabuki, political "spin" dictated by the Bush White House? If it is the latter, then its content is immaterial, because it is not credible.

I do not know General Petraeus, and I therefore cannot judge his character. What I have seen of his work is certainly better than that of his predecessors. His attempt to move our forces in Iraq out of their bases and into the neighborhoods where counter-insurgency must be fought is laudable, if hopelessly too late.

A story in the August 16 Cleveland Plain Dealer by AP’s Steven Hurst unfortunately brings General Petraeus’s credibility into some question. Hurst wrote:

One of the most significant shifts for U.S. forces recently has been recruiting allies among former Sunni insurgent areas such as the western Anbar province. "A pretty big deal," said Petraeus.

"You have to pinch yourself a little to make sure that is real because that is a very significant development in this kind of operation in counterinsurgency," he said.

"It’s all about the local people. When all the sudden the local people are on the side of the new Iraq instead of on the side of the insurgents or even al-Qaida, that’s a very significant change."

The willingness of some Sunni tribes and insurgent groups to work with U.S. forces in al Anbar against al-Qaida is significant locally, However, all my sources state emphatically that the Sunnis who are now willing to work with us do not accept "the new Iraq," which is Newspeak for the al-Maliki government in Baghdad and Iraq’s future status as an American satellite with large U.S. forces permanently based on its soil. As is usually the case in Fourth Generation war, the U.S. ­ Sunni local alliances are temporary tactical expedients, nothing more. The Sunnis we are working with make quite clear their continuing rejection of al-Maliki, Baghdad and the "New Iraq" at the same time they also reject al-Qaeda’s terror tactics (including against Sunnis) and its goal of a puritanical Islamic theocracy.

This is just one slip on General Petraeus’s part, and given the way the U.S. military invents good news to pass up the chain, it may reflect what he is being told. At the same time, the term "New Iraq" is a Bushism. So does its use reflect what is corning up the chain or what is coming down?

It is the latter possibility that is troubling, because it is the norm, not the exception. As American military officers gain rank, they soon learn that the absolute worst political sin is "committing truth." Any time they say something that contradicts what is coming out of the White House or the Office of the Secretary of Defense, they find themselves in very hot water. If they persist in the annoying practice, they discover they do not quality for senior commands.

If General Petraeus is to present a genuine military report in September and not a "cooked" political document, he will have to buck the system. It should be fairly easy to judge whether he has done that or not, because if he has, the White House will howl. The gap between the reality in Iraq and the administration’s rhetoric is so wide that it should show dramatically in any genuine military analysis. If it does not, and if the White House regards his report complacently, with just a few quibbles as part of the kabuki, then it amounts to nothing more than one of Napoleon’s bulletins — from which we got the phrase, "to lie like a bulletin."

Come September, we will find out what General Petraeus is made of. Depending on that, we may also find out something about the war in Iraq.

WILLIAM S. LIND, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.