This morning I took part in a panel discussion at the Cato Institute called "assessing the surge." It appears that last week's fireworks did not exhaust interest in the subject; the room was full - the organizer estimated about 150 people. The other panelists were Daveed Gartenstein-Ross from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Weekly Standard (pinch-hitting for Clifford May), James Dobbins of RAND, and Chris Preble of Cato. Luckily, my worst fears were not realized; nobody wanted to talk about Ayn Rand.
My comments for the most part won't surprise anyone who reads the blog regularly. In the first half, I outlined where I agreed with the Petraeus/Crocker report: there has been no political progress at the national level and in fact things have regressed - and therefore, by the original logic of the surge, it has failed; there has been little progress in the south, where intra-Shia violence is escalating; sectarian cleansing of Baghdad proceeds apace; and there have been some changes in the Sunni areas. I pointed out that the reduction of violence in Baghdad and other mixed cities results in part from the brutal fact that sectarian cleansing has succeeded - and that there is no prospect on the horizon for the return of these refugees and displaced persons, who constitute a new Iraqi community likely consumed by sectarian resentment fueled by immediate harsh experience and formulating new communal narratives which are the farthest thing from "bottom up reconciliation." I gave my usual argument about what happened in the Sunni areas, which I won't recapitulate here. I concluded with my mind-boggling experience yesterday of watching an American neoconservative on al-Jazeera lecturing a Sunni Iraqi tribal shaykh - in English - about what is really going on in the Sunni tribal areas, and warned against believing our own propaganda about the Sunni areas.
All the speakers were interesting: Garenstein-Ross gave a much more sober and guarded assessment than I had expected from a Weekly Standard writer, and we actually ended up agreeing about more than we disagreed (though I don't understand how he could argue that the Bush administration's spin was misleading and overly optimistic in 2005 and 2006, while simultaneously expecting us to believe that now, in 2007, we should take their claims at face value). Preble gave a sobering analysis focused on domestic politics which argued that the real model was Korea and that the US was not leaving Iraq any time soon in spite of the strategic failures and the hostile public opinion.
I found James Dobbins the most interesting speaker (including myself). Drawing on his own long experience as a diplomat and as a student of interventions, he argued forcefully for a version of the Iraq Study Group's 'diplomatic surge' which would bring all of Iraq's neighbors into a Dayton-like (or Bonn-like) conference. The US brought Milosevic and Tudjman to Dayton knowing perfectly well the amount of blood on their hands and the boost it would give to their domestic political fortunes, because that was the only way to end the violence - and it worked. He argued that no civil war can ever be resolved if the country's neighbors don't want it to be resolved; the US can either contain Iran or stabilize Iraq, but it can't have both.
At the end, I elaborated on Dobbins' Dayton example by suggesting an alternative lesson of the Anbar model which is rarely discussed. After years of failed warfare against the Sunni insurgency, the US decided to talk with and then cooperate with "former" insurgents with a lot of American blood on their hands. They discovered that it worked (at least for the short term). It's ironic that the same people who currently most vigorously defend the "Anbar Model" of working with these "former insurgents" usually strongly oppose any serious dialogue with Syria or Iran. If there's one good thing which could come out of the current American Sunni strategy in Iraq, perhaps it will be the recognition that talking to one's enemies can sometimes have positive results.
I'll put up a link to the video when Cato puts it online.
UPDATE: Ilan Goldenberg offers up his thoughts on the panel; he was also impressed by Jim Dobbins.