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The Democrats' Surge on Iraq

By Daniel Henninger

Carried aloft on the gassy fumes of politics, the congressional Democrats may be overshooting on Iraq. Six months from now, they may wish they had been more temperate. Helped finally by the right U.S. military strategy, the Iraq nightmare might be ebbing. Then what?

No such thought intrudes today on Democratic politics. Buoyed by President Bush's 30-something approval and with disaffection over the war at 60%, Senate Majority Leader Reid can promise to sign on to Russ Feingold's pull-the-plug bill; and House Speaker Pelosi, as if making foie gras, can cram an Iraq-withdrawal bill down the gullets of her chamber's membership. The polls are with Harry and Nancy. What can go wrong?

What could go wrong is that the U.S. military's "surge" could go right. The surge, led by Gen. David Petraeus and formally known as the Baghdad Security Plan, is a real strategy being executed by real people on the ground in Iraq. For the past several months, since President Bush announced the plan, the Democratic leadership has acted as if this effort were so irrelevant as to not exist. Why bother? The House leadership has its own "surge" up and running in Washington against the enemy in the White House.

The Democrats' D.C. surge began in February when Rep. John Murtha announced plans to shut off the war. What followed was a six-week push by the Pelosi team toward a March vote on a date-certain pullout. Across those weeks, this domestic offensive has been the big story in our politics. Add in as well the theater of operations opened by Democratic Lt. Gen. Chuck Schumer's siege of the Justice Department.

This is heady stuff, rolling a president off the field, so heady the Democrats may be allowing their compulsions to make them the one force thwarting a much longed-for military success in Iraq. This in turn could leave the Democratic Party on the wrong side of the most revered institution in American life--the U.S. military. That is, back where they were when Bill Clinton was president. The "we support the troops" mantra will ring hollow if the Democrats are pulling out Army and Marine personnel just as they're gaining on the killers of their comrades.

The timelines for the Iraq surge announced on Jan. 10 and the Democrats' surge to shut it down have run in tandem.

On Jan. 23 Gen. Petraeus offered the Senate Armed Services Committee an outline of the surge. By Feb. 8, U.S. paratroopers and engineers in Baghdad had quickly put together 10 Joint Security Stations, the new command centers to be operated with Iraq's security forces. (The material for the surge timeline here comes from the excellent "Iraq Report" compiled by Kimberly Kagan, director of the Institute for the Study of War and published biweekly on the Web site of the Weekly Standard.)

On Feb. 10, Gen. Petraeus arrived to take command of these forces in Baghdad. In the second week of February, U.S. troops conducted 20,000 patrols compared to 7,400 the week before.

On Feb. 16, the House of Representatives passed a resolution, 246-182, to oppose the mission. Nancy Pelosi: "The stakes in Iraq are too high to recycle proposals that have little prospect for success." That might not be true. It might indeed succeed.

Through February and into March, the U.S.-Iraqi forces moved into neighborhoods on the edge of Sadr City, stronghold of Shiite militias. "While the house-to-house operations continued," Ms. Kagan writes, "U.S. and Iraqi forces also interdicted the flow of fighters and supplies through those neighborhoods into Sadr City."

Meanwhile, House Democrats worked on a bill to force the withdrawal of U.S. troops by fall 2008.

On March 4, 600 U.S. and 550 Iraqi forces commenced house-to-house searches in Sadr City's Jamil neighborhood. Also in early March, with little fanfare, U.S. and Iraqi forces arrested 16 individuals connected with the Jaysh al-Mahdi cell, suspected of sectarian kidnappings and killings.

On March 23, the House voted 218-212 to remove these U.S. forces by August's end, 2008.

It's not quite three months since the surge began in Iraq, and some early assessments of the operation have emerged. They are positive. Keep in mind that this strategy emerged from military reassessment over the past year, led largely by Gen. Petraeus; this isn't a pick-up team.

Testifying last Wednesday to a House Armed Services subcommittee, military historian Fred Kagan, who has criticized administration policies, noted that the Iraqi army is "now larger than the standing armies of France and Great Britain." The nine Iraqi army battalions called for in the surge have arrived, at over 90% of programmed strength. "They are taking casualties, inflicting casualties on the enemy and helping to maintain and establish peace for the people of Baghdad," said Mr. Kagan.

A report filed last week by retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey gets the political-military dynamic just right. He notes that we are "in a position of strategic peril there. But he then describes in detail how since early February the situation on the ground has "measurably improved." Thus the conclusion: "We now need a last powerful effort to provide to U.S. leaders on the ground the political support . . . and military strength it requires to succeed."

Gen. Petraeus himself in recent interviews has been careful not to oversell this early success. But it is difficult to imagine that the American public would want to hang its military with a failure if a better outcome is in reach. Failed wars exact a price. During Vietnam, between 1966 and 1973 support for the U.S. military dropped from 62% to 32%. We're not there, yet. From 2002 till now polls have found a combined favorable view toward the military of around 85%. But withdrawing these American troops on the cusp of a reasonable success could do long-term damage.

No one can simply assume that we would avoid a decline in faith in the army as an effective American institution deserving financial support, as happened with the post-Vietnam defense cuts. As bad, it could force a failed military class--officers to grunts--to rebuild, again, the ethos and esprit necessary to defend us from the next threat. That takes time. We don't have time.

If the Iraq surge is succeeding, the Democrats' surge should stand down. If a year from now the Petraeus plan is foundering, the Democrats will have plenty of time to hang it around the GOP's neck by demanding a legitimate withdrawal date--November 2008. But not now.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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