For years now, the American presence in Iraq has been providing questions asked too often to be answered.
The U.S. Congress has been awaiting answers all summer. This past week the time came. Gen. David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq, offered their own reports on Iraq in a highly anticipated special session of Congress.
Petraeus faced some tough questions from the committee. When asked whether he would still recommend staying the course if conditions have not improved by March, he said it would be difficult to do so. This decision may have come to late.
“Congress is trying to do this now,” said Jim Hilty, a history professor at Temple. “It hasn’t moved the discussion. They keep thinking we will manage this as a military problem, when it is political.”
Hilty, who has studied the Iraqi conflict, said that the questions asked of Petraeus could have made a difference several years ago but no longer do.
“It appears the Bush administration designed the war without a clear definition of victory,” he said. “A presumption on the part of the Bush administration was that [the war] would include a near-perpetual involvement.”
Unlike the first Gulf War, which had a definite objective, the current war in Iraq has had no one main objective since its inception, which has led to its current status.
“The military is, in effect, a police force in a civil war,” Hilty said. “I don’t think the American psyche is suited to supporting police forces.”
He said that the Bush administration has treated the conflict in Iraq as a war, and that the American public has thought of it that way as well.
This has hurt the U.S.’s ability to become successful in Iraq. If the conflict were a war, then the U.S. military would have been successful a long time ago, and it was. During the brief invasion, when Saddam Hussein and his army were still standing, the armed forces performed as well as might be expected. However, the war is no longer a war in the sense that there are two military forces engaged in combat.
Since the disbanding of the Iraqi army, the U.S. has been left with the task of creating order in a vacuum of power, where anyone with guns and a group of followers can control a region or district. This state of virtual anarchy has evolved into a civil war, and the army is left to quell the violence.
“It is not losing the war; it is losing the occupation,” Hilty said, that has caused U.S. casualties.
That is not to say that U.S. and Iraqi troops have not made progress. When one considers that they are trying to essentially reunite a country that would rather be three separate entities, the troops have made admirable advances. However, there may not be a happy ending for the U.S. in Iraq, or, for that matter, for the Iraqis.
The congressional hearing is a positive sign that politicians are asking questions. Grilling Petraeus on why he hasn’t won the war does not make much sense, however, given the incredibly broad and complex scope of the Iraq issue. If Congress really wants to deal with Iraq, it needs to address some of these deeper issues, instead of asking questions about timetables and withdrawals.
Stephen Zook can be reached at email@example.com.