How tempting it was yesterday to give Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker the benefit of the doubt. We really are - finally - turning the corner in Iraq, each said in testimony before a joint House committee. At last we've figured it out. A satisfactory outcome is obtainable, if only America sticks to it.
But were they persuasive? Not very. It's hard to escape the feeling that this long-awaited and thoroughly pre-aired progress report is little more than a fingers-crossed effort to kick the can down the road.
Certainly, General Petraeus was able to point to all sorts of selective statistics that back up his view that the surge is showing results (though deaths of American soldiers have been running above average since it began). But his assertion that the tactical gains achieved so far will be sustainable once the surge recedes next year - and moreover be translatable into strategic gains - was delivered as a matter of simple faith. Of evidence there was none.
Mr. Crocker was somewhat less able to boast of diplomatic progress, because there has been no diplomatic surge to match the military one, but he could talk about various incremental steps. For instance, the Saudis have reopened their embassy in Baghdad. That's good. But the sentence that really jumped out of his testimony was about the restoration of electric service - it could well be achieved, he said, by the year 2016.
That'll take a heap of patience, for those willing to wait. And are American soldiers supposed to keep fighting and hoping that something better turns up until then?
The point of the surge was to buy time for the Iraqi government so that it could find ways to foster reconciliation. Nothing like that has happened. But the surge did buy time for the Sunni sheiks, especially those in Anbar province, who have calculated that it is in their interest to turn against the al-Qaida fighters in their midst, which should strengthen their hand in then dealing with the Shiite majority.
General Petraeus made much of that development yesterday, but it presages a divided country - Sunni here, Shiite there, Kurds in the north - not a united one. It also raises the interesting point that in a few months, a group of tribal chieftains has accomplished what would have clearly been beyond the ability of the Iraqi army, after four years of U.S. training. It shows just how little this war resembles the war that the U.S. military is built to fight. If a divided country is inevitable, as seems likely, it might just be better to let the Iraqis sort it out themselves.
It's worth remembering that the British once controlled Basra, and that southern province was a model of peaceful administration, until the local militias decided to take over. The institution-building undertaken by the British was soon forgotten, and now that they're leaving in defeat, so, too, will the British be forgotten.
The point is that the disposition of Iraq is ultimately a question for the Iraqis, and it doesn't matter that they are not likely to answer it in a way that Americans would feel good about.
General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker seemed blind to that yesterday. That's why their optimism is so out of place.