Asked If Iraq Is A ‘Success,’ Petraeus Answers ‘Umm…’

petraeusThe war in Afghanistan was the main focus of David Gregory’s Meet the Press interview with Gen. David Petraeus on Sunday, they had a couple brief exchanges on Iraq that were particularly revealing about what the U.S. has — and has not — achieved there. Gregory first asked Petraeus, “If the outcome [in Afghanistan] is like Iraq, is that achieving the mission?”

GEN. PETRAEUS: Well, the outcome in Iraq is still to be written, but if you could reduce the level of violence by some 90 to 95 percent, as was the case in Iraq, to below a threshold which allows commerce and business and outside investment to take place, where there is an election that’s certainly at least elected representatives, and now you have to see if they can come together and form a government that is still representative of and responsive to the people, as was the previous one. If that can all be achieved there, that would be a reasonable solution here as well.

Later, Gregory came back to Iraq, asking whether Petraeus considered it “a durable success.” Petraeus again demurred:

GEN. PETRAEUS: Well, again, I think the final chapter for Iraq is certainly still to be written. And of course, there’s an immediate, pressing issue there, which is the formation of the government. I think they can come together. I think that what will end up happening is it won’t be a question of just who will be the president, prime minister, and speaker of the council of representatives; rather, there will be some power sharing agreements that will be officially or unofficially made that will enable the selection of the key leaders. I think that is what is holding the process up. Very important, of course, to get that government in place and, and, and hopefully to ensure that it is like the previous government. For all its challenges, it was representative of the Iraqi people, and it was broadly responsive to it. They knew there were elections coming up, and they actually took actions because of that.

Even for someone as famously circumspect as Petraeus, this is pretty remarkable. His reputation was secured as the hero of the Iraq surge, and yet, asked if we have achieved success there as a result, even he is not willing to simply answer “yes.”

It’s not difficult to understand why. Even though the violence remains at its lowest since the 2003 invasion, insurgent groups still retain the ability to carry out spectacular acts of violence, and Iraq’s bickering leaders are no closer to forming a government almost six months after elections. The Washington Post reports today that negotiations between Iraq’s two most powerful political blocs broke down yesterday, “dashing hopes that a solution to a more than five-month impasse after national elections was on the horizon.” Earlier today, in the latest in a string of terrorist attacks, “more than 50 people were killed and another 100 were wounded when an Iraq suicide bomber struck an Army recruiting center in Baghdad.”

As my colleagues Brian Katulis and Peter Juul and I wrote in our May 2010 report, The Iraq War Ledger, even if one grants the best-case scenarios currently on offer, when weighing possible benefits against the costs of the Iraq intervention as whole, there is simply no conceivable calculus by which it can be judged to have been a successful or worthwhile policy. It speaks well of Petraeus that, even as many of those policymakers and pundits most responsible for the Iraq debacle have simply declared victory and moved on, he’s not quite willing to play along.