March 20, 2008 | Commentary on International Conflicts

Progress in Iraq

What impact would a Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama victory have on U.S. foreign policy, a foreign journalist wanted to know. How would the world be able to tell the difference between them and the Bush administration? The hoped-for answer seemed to be that the United States would suddenly be enamored of international institutions like the United Nations and otherwise stop acting so "unilateralist."

In one respect, I said, the answer is very simple: If you are an Iraqi, you will know almost immediately because American troops will start departing your country, leaving the field open for al Qaeda as well as the Shi'ite and Sunni terrorist groups that nearly tore the country apart before the United States increased troop levels to prevent a full-fledged civil war. All the gains that have been made since the beginning of the U.S. engagement, which marks its fifth anniversary, stand to be lost. My reply rather put an end to this particular line of questions.

In the coming weeks, Washington will yet again have an opportunity to assess progress in Iraq when Gen. David Petraeus testifies to Congress. Based on Gen. Petraeus' previous reports and the evidence of other observers, we can expect a promising report that may lead to the end of the U.S. surge by next summer, pending the general's testimony and decisions yet to be made in the White House.

During a recent appearance at the Heritage Foundation, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who is in charge of implementing the U.S. surge strategy in Iraq, gave a taste of what we can expect from Gen. Petraeus. The new strategy associated with the surge, which took place from January to June 2007, focused on creating the security on the ground, particularly in Baghdad. This would enable Iraqi society to start functioning again after having come to an almost complete standstill as violence escalated. Protecting the Iraqi people, not just strategic assets, became the goal.

And additional U.S. troops did not tell the whole story, either. Increasing the capabilities of the Iraqi Security Forces was key, and so was a more equitable approach to identifying the enemy. This meant greater cooperation with Sunni leaders in the fight against Shi'ite terrorist militias, something that had been happening in Anbar province with positive results. This meant persuading the Shi'ite-led government of Iraq, which cooperated in spite of its less-than-stellar reputation here in Washington.

Throughout Baghdad, joint security stations, combat outposts and checkpoints helped secure neighborhoods and markets, denying the terrorists the strongholds from which they were terrorizing the city and keeping them off balance.

The numbers demonstrate how well this strategy has worked. In 2006, there were 300 attacks per week in Anbar province. One year later, that number had dropped to 30. Today, the numbers are down further to 20 attacks per week. In December 2006, civilian deaths stood at 3,000 nationwide in Iraq. This was reduced to less than 1,000 per month in less than a year. In the Baghdad security districts, violent attacks as well as casualties dropped by 90 percent during 2007.

This is not to say that there is not a way to go. Clearly, the level of civilian deaths needs to come down further. A comprehensive plan for the return and resettlement of the 2 million displaced Iraqi citizens, who have started to trickle home as the violence has dropped, is also critical. There remains much work to be done before the United States and its allies can say that the work in Iraq is done.

Looking at the big picture, the biggest stake in the U.S. engagement in Iraq is the difference that an Arab democracy will make in the Middle East, a region that lags far behind the rest of the world in democratic development. The potential long-term benefits from this achievement are huge. And without security on the ground, political progress cannot be made.

Critics of the Bush administration argue that the costs of a stable democracy in the Persian Gulf region are too high. But what would be the potential costs of giving up now in humanitarian terms for the Iraqi people in encouragement for al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups and in terms of energy security for the already soaring international oil markets? The answer is that the consequences would be massive and devastating, and they would inexorably pull the United States back to Iraq at a future date.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: International Conflicts

First appeared in the Washington Times