I am now reading Barry Posen’s new book, Restraint. In one section he makes an important point about U.S. military presence in Iraq and its relationship with Iraq’s political dysfunction that is relevant to the current debate:

It is striking that having waged a vicious civil war, Iraqis did not during the U.S. occupation, nor do they now, feel any pressure to settle matters that could lead, indeed may already have led, to a resurgence of fighting. It is hard to escape the suspicion that the presence of U.S. forces permitted key actors to defer hard decisions, rather than providing a safety net to insure them as they made difficult compromises, which was the hope. It seems that the parties simply took advantage of the U.S. presence to rest and refit for fights to come [bold mine-DL]. (p. 50)

So it makes no sense to believe that a small residual force would have produced the desired political reconciliation or positive changes in Maliki’s behavior. A continued U.S. presence would just have provided another excuse for Maliki and his allies not to make the reforms needed to facilitate reconciliation between the country’s different groups. Posen also judges the “surge” to be a failure on its own terms:

The surge must be judged on its strategic results; did it produce a stable, democratic, and functional Iraqi government, friendly to the United States? The answer is no….But regarding the most critical political issues, passage of legislation on the distribution of the country’s oil wealth, the integration of those formerly connected to the Saddam regime into Iraqi society and politics, the integration of Sunni Arabs into the security services…and the settlement of internal territorial disputes with the Kurdish region, little or nothing was accomplished prior to the departure of U.S. combat forces. (p. 49-50)

So when you hear an old Iraq hawk harping on the success of the “surge” or how the U.S. had “won” in Iraq prior to withdrawing, remember that it isn’t true. Unfortunately, the latest events in Iraq remind us just how false the mythology surrounding the “surge” has always been.

P.S. Posen will be making the case for restraint at our conference tomorrow. Register here.