Yglesias’ response to Ross’ latest column gets it just about right:

And while the situations don’t bear any resemblance in detail, there is a certain vague similarity in that while I would say counterinsurgency in the Philippines “worked” it’s hard for me to see that it actually achieved anything. I mean, suppose the Philippines had obtained independence from the United States in the 1890s rather than the 1940s. How would my life be worse? How would any American’s life be worse? What “long-term benefits” actually accrued to us as a result of the counterinsurgency effort?

It seems to me that unless you look at victory and conquest as being their own reward, it’s hard to see any. Anti-American rebels lost, but we didn’t really win anything of note. We spent a lot of money, suffered some casualties, killed a lot of people and in exchange got some military bases that were overrun by the Japanese as soon as it looked like they might be strategically useful.

We should be so lucky if the Iraq war ever yields anything nearly as beneficial as the Filipino war did. Perhaps a future Iraqi dictator will be generous enough to lend us military aid as we fight in another unnecessary war in the region! Iraq certainly resembles the Filipino war much more than it does the Korean, if only because the Filipino war was just as utterly unnecessary and wrong as the invasion of Iraq was. Whatever else one can say about the war in Korea, it was a war defending South Korea against an unprovoked attack; it had some semblance of legality and international legitimacy, and pretty clearly secured millions of people from coming under the rule of an appalling government. The Iraq war is quite unlike this is pretty much every way. If the Filipino war yielded no real long-term benefits, and if it was a factor in pulling us into a war with Japan, this comparison actually makes the war in Iraq look much worse as a matter of long-term strategic interests than Vietnam ever could have been. So the “amalgamation of the Korean War and America’s McKinley-era counterinsurgency in the Philippines” is extremely heavy on the latter and has virtually none of the former, but I wouldn’t rule out that the war in Iraq will have a Korea-like open-ended, perpetual quality that the Filipino war lacked.

It is always very frustrating whenever Ross writes about foreign policy. I wouldn’t mind the repetition of establishment bromides along the lines of “everyone knows the “surge” worked,” except that rather well-informed people in the establishment have made a point of emphasizing its fundamental failure. Even granting certain hawks credit for devising tactical changes that improved security conditions, the “much-hated neoconservatives” whom Ross credits with some sort of strategic vision here backed what was always going to be a temporary and superficial attempted fix of enduring structural problems in Iraq. Indeed, as ever, those who continually refuse to address Iraq policy at the strategic level and obsess about tactics are the hawks, who cannot provide a coherent, achievable set of objectives that would allow us to know when we have succeeded. Perhaps even more important, the hawks ignore the failure to reach stated strategic objectives (i.e., politicial reconciliation) to perpetuate the myth that their temporary fix was successful on its own terms. Naturally, then, it is proponents of withdrawal whom Ross criticizes for their alleged lack of strategic thinking about post-withdrawal Iraq, when it has largely been the opponents of the war who have been doing most of the strategic thinking since 2002.

Ricks wrote last month that “the surge succeeded tactically but failed strategically.” Regarding the “surge,” Walt put it this way earlier this month:

The second and equally important goal was to promote political reconciliation among the competing factions in Iraq. This goal was not achieved, and the consequences of that failure are increasingly apparent. What lies ahead is a long-delayed test of strength between the various contending groups, until a new formula for allocating political power emerges. That formula has been missing since before the United States invaded — that is, Washington never had a plausible plan for reconstructing a workable Iraqi state once it dismantled Saddam’s regime — and it will be up to the Iraqi people to work it out amongst themselves. It won’t be pretty.

With the passage of time, the “surge” should be seen as a well-intentioned attempt to staunch the violence temporarily and let President Bush hand the problem off to his successor. Hawks will undoubtedly try to pin the blame on Obama by claiming that we were (finally) winning by the time Bush left office, in the hope that Americans have forgotten the strategic objectives that the “surge” was supposed to achieve. It’s a bogus argument, but what would you expect from the folks who got us in there in the first place?

Advocates for withdrawal have never pretended that we hold the key to fixing those structural problems, because they are Iraq’s structural problems that must be fixed by Iraqis, which is why we have been calling for withdrawal for at least the last four years. However, opponents of the war supposedly got the “surge” wrong by opposing it, despite the long odds that it would succeed and despite its actual failure, which is somehow supposed to rehabilitate the reputations of the people who have been wrong at every turn. One of the recurring problems with the hawkish line on Iraq is that hawks vastly overexaggerate the importance of Iraq, and they have done this from the beginning. Whether it was because it was the “center” of the region, or because it was (once upon a time) the most educated and secular Arab nation, or because it was once (centuries ago) the seat of the caliphate, or because it has oil reserves, Iraq is always invested with such enormous significance. Ross does this again:

But America’s most important interest remains a stable, unified Republic of Iraq, even if takes longer than any domestic faction wants. Afghanistan may be “the good war” to most Americans, but Iraq’s size, location, history and resources mean that it’s still by far the more important one.

Let’s take these one by one. Iraq is smaller than Afghanistan in sheer square miles and population, unlike Afghanistan it is surrounded on almost every side by stable, U.S.-allied states, its pre-Hussein history did not distinguish it greatly from other Arab states, its current and future close ties with Iran are not going to be undone by any U.S. policy, and its resources do not make it fundamentally different from any other petro-state in the world. Incidentally, it is precisely those resources that make our efforts in Iraq far more redundant than they would ever be in the far more impoverished reaches of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Arguments could be made that current Af-Pak policy is misguided in significant, but different ways, but to the extent that everyone agrees that the real issue in Af-Pak policy is Pakistani and regional stability and, more remotely, the fate of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal it seems clear that Af-Pak is the more strategically significant conflict. That does not necessarily mean that the U.S. should engage in the sort of prolonged and extensive nation-building effort this administration has endorsed, nor does it mean that we should continue current tactics, which seem to be pushing the Taliban deeper into Pakistan and strengthening them. But it certainly doesn’t mean continuing to chase the will o’ the wisp that is Iraq’s vast strategic significance by perpetuating a war that should never been started.