2016 and the Fable of the Surge


Over at the Atlantic, Peter Beinart writes about the “fallacy of the surge”—the notion that the surge in Iraq won the war, and things have since fallen apart only because President Obama withdrew American troops and left the field wide open for the taking. Thanks to Obama’s gutlessness, goes the story, “Iraq collapsed, ISIS rose, and the Middle East fell apart.” Beinart continues:

For today’s GOP leaders, this story line has squelched the doubts about the Iraq invasion that a decade ago threatened to transform conservative foreign policy. The legend of the surge has become this era’s equivalent of the legend that America was winning in Vietnam until, in the words of Richard Nixon’s former defense secretary Melvin Laird, “Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by cutting off funding for our ally in 1975.” In the late 1970s, the legend of the congressional cutoff—and it was a legend; Congress reduced but never cut off South Vietnam’s aid—spurred the hawkish revival that helped elect Ronald Reagan. As we approach 2016, the legend of the surge is playing a similar role. Which is why it’s so important to understand that the legend is wrong.

I’ve written about this before on many occasions, so here’s the nutshell version. It’s not that the surge itself was a failure. Gen. David Petraeus did an admirable job of taking advantage of events on the ground, and his strategy really did reduce the violence of the civil war that had broken out. The problem is that all the surge did—all it could do—was give Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki a bit of breathing space to fashion a permanent peace in the form of a political settlement with the Sunni community. He never did that, nor did we ever really put the screws on him to do it. Without that, a relapse into violence was inevitable:

The prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, began persecuting the Sunnis—thus laying the groundwork for their embrace of ISIS—long before American troops departed the country. As early as 2007, writes Emma Sky, who advised both Petraeus and his successor, General Ray Odierno, “the U.S. military was frustrated by what they viewed as the schemes of Maliki and his inner circle to actively sabotage our efforts to draw Sunnis out of the insurgency.”

….The tragedy of post-surge Iraq has its roots in America’s failure to make the Iraqi government more inclusive—a failure that began under Bush and deepened under Obama. In 2010, Sunnis, who had largely boycotted Iraq’s 2005 elections, helped give a mixed Shia-Sunni bloc called Iraqiya two more seats in parliament than Maliki’s party won. But the Obama administration helped Maliki retain power. And Obama publicly praised him for “ensuring a strong, prosperous, inclusive, and democratic Iraq” even after he tried to arrest his vice president and other prominent Sunni leaders.

If Republicans want to blame Obama for this, fine. But Bush did the same, so they’d have to accept some of the blame themselves. If we did indeed “lose” Iraq, it was because we never took political reconciliation seriously enough, not because we had too few troops in the country.

But this won’t do. As with the Vietnam myth, the fable of the surge is mostly a political construct. Nobody who understands the actual Iraq timeline takes it seriously, but it’s a handy way of attacking Obama, and it plays well with low-information voters who figure that it’s just plain common sense that war is about military force and nothing else. As an added bonus, it plays right into the Republican theme that our military has been hollowed out by Obama and needs a Reaganesque rebuilding.

And the fact that it’s not true? Even moderate Republicans aren’t speaking up to say so. You do know there’s a presidential campaign going on, don’t you?