With casualties down in Iraq, supporters of the war are heralding success. Al Qaeda, they argue, is on the run. The surge has worked, and is even a model for Afghanistan.
If they are right, it is a wonderful development. But that's a big "if," and nagging questions remain.
First, why don't the people in the region acknowledge the triumph of American power? For example, in mid-July the head of Saudi Arabia's Security Council, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, visited Moscow, where he reportedly offered the Russians a deal: if Moscow reduced its cooperation with Tehran, the Saudis would be interested in purchasing large quantities of arms from Russia.
It may be a coincidence that Bandar is a former Saudi Ambassador to the United States, but his visit underlines the shift in the perception of influence, and begs the question: If the U.S. is succeeding, why is Bandar visiting Moscow rather than Washington to look for assistance in balancing Iran?
Similarly, the sense of diminishing American influence can be seen in the visit of Ahmad Chalabi to Iran on June 29. Calling Iran one of Iraq's best friends, according to the Iranian press report, Chalabi claimed the proposed status of forces agreement does not benefit Iraqis and is designed to allow the U.S. to maintain a long-term presence in the region.
Considering Chalabi's role several years ago as an influential expatriate urging the United States to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein, his embrace of Iran would seem to indicate a shift in his assessment of the balance of power. Put simply, if the United States is succeeding, why is Chalabi siding with Tehran and not with Washington?
The invasion of Iraq was supposed to inspire awe of American power, but that awe is now conspicuously absent. Indeed, if there is one country that appears to have benefited from the American invasion of Iraq: Iran.
Instead of being intimidated, Iran is defiant, and it is challenging the U.S. for influence over Iraq.
Earlier this year, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Iraq, and shortly afterward Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki reciprocated with a visit to Tehran. During his visit, Maliki was supposed to read the riot act to the Iranians about their support to Iraqi insurgents, but according to the Iranian defense minister he never brought up the subject.
On the contrary, the visit concluded with the two sides signing a secret memorandum of understanding about future defense cooperation. It is noteworthy that Maliki's hard-line stance about the status of forces agreement follows the Iranian position, which opposes any long-term American presence in Iraq.
Finally, there is the problem of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, where our casualties now exceed the losses in Iraq. General David Petraeus, newly installed as the head of Central Command after presiding over the surge in Iraq, has publicly mused that al Qaeda may have begun emphasizing Afghanistan and Pakistan at the expense of Iraq.
That would make sense: with the United States focused on Iraq, al Qaeda focuses on Pakistan — which unlike Iraq, possesses nuclear weapons. Is it coincidence that violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan has grown over the last few months? Was al Qaeda surging there while the U.S. was surging in Iraq?
It is striking that, in contrast to American commentators, media based in the Middle East region do not see a U.S. victory. For example, Lebanon's Daily Star, in a June 9 editorial, denounced "the cynical and disastrous war in Iraq" and accused the Bush Administration of "using extortion" in its negotiations for a new status of forces agreement. Similarly, the Gulf News on July 30 cautioned that "talk of the success of the troop surge is at best premature and at worst inspired by domestic political concerns in the U.S."
Are comments like these unrepresentative? Perhaps, but those who argue we are winning need to make that case. We have celebrated victory before only to be disappointed, and we need to become more rigorous in our assessments. In short, we need to ask more questions.