The globe will resume spinning on its axis when Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker deliver their long-awaited report on conditions in Iraq. (You may have noticed that the Bush administration has put off all decisions, about everything, pending this fateful event.)
Two things are worth noting in advance. First, according to Petraeus' spokesman, there will be no report per se. The word is being taken as a verb, not a noun; that is, the general and the ambassador will report to Congress, testifying before the House on Monday, the Senate on Tuesday, and, as a follow-up, the National Press Club on Wednesday.
Second, if Petraeus and Crocker decide to go beyond the predictable bromides (x is improving, y is slightly worsening, z is pretty much the same), they would do well to let us in on the status not only of Iraq but also of American strategy.
The surge will be over in April 2008, when the U.S. Army and Marines run out of deployable troops, and therefore at least a quarter of the 20 brigades now in Iraq will inevitably be withdrawn and not replaced. This is by now common knowledge. At the same time, nearly all politicians, including most Democrats, have come out against a total withdrawal and have recognized that we will have some military presence in Iraq for a long time to come.
So, the questions that Congress should make sure Petraeus and Crocker answer are these: After the surge, what? What is the new strategy? What are the core missions of U.S. forces? Where should they go, and what should they do there? What can they accomplish, with a fair chance of success, at reduced levels? And what is the meaning of success?
In recent weeks, Gen. Petraeus has frequently said that he is making "tactical progress." He will no doubt recite the phrase a few more times next week. It's important to be clear on what the phrase means and what it doesn't mean.
It means that military progress is being made in the fight against al-Qaida in Mesopotamia and related jihadist movements, especially in Anbar province but also in such other erstwhile strongholds as Baqubah, Ramadi, and a few neighborhoods around Baghdad.
This is salutary and significant. But it has nothing to do with the surge. And it has at best little effect on the political goals of the war—to create order, protect the civilian population, and help bring about a stable, self-sustaining, self-defending, at least somewhat democratic government of Iraq.
Gen. Petraeus has noted (as would any good officer who's read Clausewitz) that military victory is hollow without the accomplishment of the war's political objectives. He has also said that some political objectives are a subset of others—that, for instance, the main reason for protecting the people of Baghdad is to create a secure environment, some "breathing space" that might allow Iraq's political factions to reconcile and form a unified government.
If there is little chance that these factions can reconcile, then the military operations are futile. And, in the scheme of the fissures now racking Iraq, the defeat of AQM—while worthwhile in its own right—amounts to a bit of a sideshow.
However, the operations in Anbar, Baqubah, and Ramadi do have another virtue, in the context of next week's testimony: They are activities in which U.S. military power can play a dominant, even a determinant, role. Gen. Petraeus will probably emphasize these operations not just because they've been successful (as few operations in Iraq have been), but also because they are something that he, as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, can control or at least directly affect.
Crocker is in a tougher spot: He has to outline the prospects for Iraq's political success. Baghdad's ramshackle central government seems to offer little hope in this regard. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is too beholden to Shiite parties that unalterably oppose sharing power with Sunnis, and this fact further radicalizes the Sunnis. Meanwhile, several Iraqi army units—and nearly all the police forces—are rife with corruption and driven more by sectarian than by national loyalties.