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Avoiding The Question

The argumentover who was for the “surge” first misses several important points.  It’s true that there were doubts about the efficacy of deploying additional forces into Baghdad, since it seemed to be no different from previous increases in the number of soldiers there, but the more significant objections were to the proposal that the “surge” be temporary and that this temporary measure would facilitate political reconciliation.  The latter has still, for the most part, not occurred, nor was there ever much reason to expect that it would occur.  Even the Pentagon’s own more positive report has little good to say about the Iraqi government.  According to the administration’s standards, the “surge” has generally not yielded the results that it was supposed to yield–that’s normally what we call failure.  Meanwhile, the GAO says that the measurements that the administration is using to show progress in Iraq are either flawed or show a less positive picture than the one currently being trumpeted.  Then there’s this:

Over all [sic], the report says, the American plan for a stable Iraq lacks a strategic framework that meshes with the administration’s goals, is falling out of touch with the realities on the ground and contains serious flaws in its operational guidelines.

That is the real point, and one that the defenders of the “surge” carefully avoid whenever they discuss the issue.  “Violence is down!” they cry.  Well, yes, but then these were often the same people who declared every suicide bombing to be a sign of the desperation of the enemy and proof that we were winning.  It was good when violence was up, and now it is good that violence is down, and it will be good when violence is at a steady level, because there will never be anything to persuade the most die-hard defenders of this war that it should be brought to an expeditious end.  Furthermore, the very temporary nature of the “surge” reveals it as something of a stunt, which critics have noted has more to do with shoring up the war’s political viability at home with the political class than it does with the long-term political stability of Iraq.  However, ironically the “surge” may end up achieving the opposite result, since a decline from the nightmarish violence of 2006 to the merely horrible violence of today has made Iraq seem more stable and thus more capable of surviving an American withdrawal.  Antiwar sentiment remains as strong as it was in January 2007, and now there is not the daily reminder that Iraq could fall to pieces after our forces leave.  The “surge” has failed by administration standards, but it may have worked well enough to ensure McCain’s defeat.  That would be an unusually fitting end.

To the exent that the “surge” is working to improve security, as virtually everyone agrees it has to some degree, it makes little sense to then reduce force levels to pre-“surge” levels while remaining in Iraq indefinitely.

As Prof. Bacevich stated very well last year:

That is, if the commitment of a modest increment of additional forces —the 30,000 troops comprising the surge, now employed in accordance with sound counterinsurgency doctrine —has begun to turn things around, then what should the senior field commander be asking for next?

A single word suffices to answer that question: more. More time. More money. And above all, more troops.

It is one of the oldest principles of generalship: when you find an opportunity, exploit it. Where you gain success, reinforce it. When you have your opponent at a disadvantage, pile on. In a letter to the soldiers serving under his command, released just prior to the congressional hearings, Petraeus asserted that coalition forces had “achieved tactical momentum and wrestled the initiative from our enemies.” Does that reflect his actual view of the situation? If so, then surely the imperative of the moment is to redouble the current level of effort so as to preserve that initiative and to deny the enemy the slightest chance to adjust, adapt, or reconstitute.

Yet Petraeus has chosen to do just the opposite. Based on two or three months of (ostensibly) positive indicators, he has advised the president to ease the pressure, withdrawing the increment of troops that had (purportedly) enabled the coalition to seize the initiative in the first place.

The clock has run out on the “surge,” and the additional brigades have departed or are departing.  Given that nothing fundamental about Iraq has changed, why would returning to more or less pre-“surge” levels not eventually lead to greater violence and increased instability?  Even with changes in tactics, the problem of insufficient forces that has plagued the U.S. mission remains.  The premise of the Brooks column is that Bush stubbornly resisted the advice of his generals (and everyone else), but in fact he simply chose a new general whose advice he now follows to the letter.  For all of last year, you might have thought that David Petraeus had become the President, so often did everyone in the administration defer to him.

Here is Prof. Bacevich again: 

The general has now made his call, and President Bush has endorsed it: the surge having succeeded (so at least we are assured), it will now be curtailed. The war will continue, albeit on a marginally smaller scale. As events develop, it just might become smaller still. Only time will tell.

Petraeus has chosen a middle course, carefully crafted to cause the least amount of consternation among various Washington constituencies he is eager to accommodate. This is the politics of give and take, of horse trading, of putting lipstick on a pig. Ultimately, it is the politics of avoidance. 

Indeed, the politics of the “surge” has all along been an effort to avoid answering the question, “What are we doing in Iraq?”  We all know the standard answers, but none of them is credible any longer.  You could tell from the beginning that there was no good answer to this question, not least since most of its supporters described the “surge” as a new “strategy,” when it was simply a new set of tactics in pursuit of the same pointless, aimless strategy that we have been pursuing in that unfortunate country for five years. 

As the NYT article relates:

Still more important, the report asserts, the administration’s plan is not a strategy at all, but more a series of operational prescriptions scattered among various documents reviewed by the accountability office.

The bureaucrats understand that there is no strategy here.  Do the President and the generals?

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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