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No More Goal Posts

Ross writes:

However, something like the reverse is also true: Just because the initial invasion was almost certainly a mistake doesn’t necessarily mean that the continued presence of U.S. troops is a mistake as well. And I detect some goalpost-shifting here among the partisans of immediate withdrawal.


But given that only six weeks ago he [Yglesias] was throwing out “4 or 5 more years” as a timeline for when Iraq might start to settle down, I think it’s also “at least plausible” that when we look back on the last year of American military operations in Iraq, we’ll judge them to have played a major role in putting the worst behind us earlier than most people anticipated.

I suppose I must chime in with my usual dose of pessimism.  The “continued presence of U.S. troops” would only not be a mistake if there were reason to think that the changes that have yielded some marginal, temporary improvement in security were going to continue and serve as the foundation for some enduring security.  As Prof. Bacevich has said:

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. 

This goes to the heart of Prof. Bacevich’s criticism of Gen. Petraeus, which is that the plan that seems to be producing some results is being brought to a close because it was not politically viable under the current circumstances to keep it going, much less expand it.  Bacevich again:

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. 

And again:

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.

This defies logic. It’s as if two weeks into the Wilderness Campaign, Grant had counseled Lincoln to reduce the size of the Army of the Potomac. Or as if once Allied forces had established the beachhead at Normandy, Eisenhower had started rotating divisions back stateside to ease the strain on the U.S. Army.

Having achieved modest gains with a half-measure, Gen. Petraeus counsels us to go back to our trusty quarter-measures.  As I have said earlier, the “surge” is necessarily temporary in its application and in its effects.  Its temporariness is implicit in its official propaganda name of “surge” and in the stated policy of the U.S. government, in that the “surge” was always going to come to an end.  Its purpose was to buy time, which it seems to have done.  However, this time is basically worthless–though bought at too high a price in American blood–if it is not going to be used well.    

We have seen temporary increases in force levels before, and they did not ultimately halt Iraq’s downward spiral.  The “surge” was, by the account of its own backers, supposed to be completely different from these earlier efforts. This time, there would be political reconciliation, and this time Iraqisation would happen, and this time the lambs would lay down with the lions.  Okay, they didn’t say that last part, but the other two were just as likely to happen as the third.  Unsurprisingly, none of them has come to pass, nor does any one of them seem likely to happen anytime soon. 

During the “bad, old days” of “clear, hold and build” you would read stories about how one neighbourhood of Baghdad would be secured, life would begin to resume and then the U.S. deployment would be shifted to another part, whereupon the stabilising neighbourhood reverted to violent chaos.  What is supposed to be different when force levels drop and whatever pressure that the “surge” did exert weakens?  

Now the paired element with the “surge” of brigades was always the old “Iraqis standing up” bit.  We don’t hear a lot about this part of the plan, because this is the part–the fundamentally more important long-term part–that isn’t working very well.  We all know that the political reconciliation part is a farce.  If anything, I’d have to say that Yglesias’ estimate of 4-5 years before Iraq “settles down” may be unduly sunny and positive, because there is nothing to keep things from unraveling again once the “surge” ends.  There was never going to be anything to keep things from unraveling once the “surge” was over, which is why the “surge” was a mistake in the beginning.  It perpetuated the worst-of-both-worlds approach that Mr. Bush has applied to Iraq for years: too few soldiers to properly stabilise the country, but too many to avoid all the costs and burdens of being an occupier.  There are two coherent positions that can be taken (huge increases in force levels or large-scale withdrawal), and one of them is politically and practically feasible.  Or we can continue to muddle through as we have done until some calamity throws Iraq into a new round of upheaval.

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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