Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Truth on "The Surge"

Within the past 12 months, Charlie Gibson, Katie Couric and Tom Brokaw (among others) have badgered leading Democrats to proclaim "the Surge" a success. In each case that I've seen, the Democrat (Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John Edwards) has given a serious and accurate response, to which the reporters have been dismissive, pushing on with their same insistence – 'Say it! The Surge has worked! Hallelujah!' There's some good reporting on Iraq in the newspapers, particularly from McClatchy, but the reporting on television is often frustratingly misleading. As we've often discussed, any drop in violence is most welcome, but the supposed purpose of "the surge" was to buy time for a political reconciliation that hasn't occurred yet, and may be very far off. The drop in violence has multiple causes, including the escalation of American troops, but there are other extremely significant factors it would be dishonest (and folly) to ignore. That said, while things may no longer be horrifically dreadful, they're still quite dreadful. There are still 4-5 million displaced Iraqis, a staggering number especially give the population size, and basic services such as water and electricity are still below pre-war levels for many Iraqis. There is some sincere disagreement on whether withdrawal is the best move, and at what pace - although given the feelings of the Iraqi people and the position of the Maliki government, currently all American troops would be out by 2011 (we'll see how that plays out). Regardless, there's much less room for wild disagreement when it comes to (ahem) serious discussion of the realities of Iraq – realities which are complex, thorny and dire. The occupation cheerleaders rarely mention those realities, preferring to present an extremely narrow, misleading, sometimes Pollyanna view. Some go further, and add the vile McCarthyist rhetoric employed by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham at the Republican National Convention, where he all but denounced Barack Obama and other Democrats as traitors. Some of this is an extremely repulsive breed of politics, some of it's myopic zealotry, some of it's a fervent desire for vindication - but it's all dangerous.

Some of the press might also seek this justification, however unconsciously, given that so many pushed a "pro-Bush, pro-war narrative" and so many still feel they did a good job in the run-up to the war. A large number of prominent reporters (especially on television) never seem to consider for even a moment that a key goal of "the surge" was to influence American politics, a critique confirmed by Bob Woodward's latest book (the basic game was long ago figured out by liberal bloggers, Tom Tomorrow and The Daily Show). But then, this is a group who all but ignored the story about an illegal, domestic propaganda campaign by the Pentagon they abetted, rather than admit that they were, yet again, credulous dupes.

There are a number of excellent media outlets and bloggers for Iraq news and analysis, and we have several fairly extensive pieces among the BH and VS posts on Iraq. Meanwhile, Dan Froomkin's 9/9/08 column, "Inside Bush's Surge," spurred by excerpts from Woodward's book, provides a good overview of the complex realities of "the surge." For instance:

In a sidebar, Woodward criticizes the conventional wisdom that the surge worked. "[T]he full story was more complicated. At least three other factors were as important as, or even more important than, the surge. These factors either have not been reported publicly or have received less attention than the influx of troops.

"Beginning in the late spring of 2007, the U.S. military and intelligence agencies launched a series of top-secret operations that enabled them to locate, target and kill key individuals in groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni insurgency and renegade Shia militias, or so-called special groups. The operations incorporated some of the most highly classified techniques and information in the U.S. government. . . .

"A second important factor in the lessening of violence was the so-called Anbar Awakening, in which tens of thousands of Sunnis turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq and signed up with U.S. forces."

(Woodward neglects to mention the $25 million a month that the U.S. government is paying those Sunni gunmen for their services.)

"A third significant break came Aug. 29, when militant Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his powerful Mahdi Army to suspend operations, including attacks against U.S. troops," Woodward writes.

And there are some other factors Woodward leaves out. Consider, for instance, the possibility that years of ethnic cleansing have left a formerly integrated country fragmented into internally peaceful but heavily armed pieces. And there is growing evidence that all sides are now just patiently waiting until we leave to start fighting again -- this time with plenty of American money and weapons on every side.

Froomkin's intro spells things out very well (emphasis added):

It's not exactly news that President Bush dismisses the advice of his military commanders when it doesn't suit him -- and did so, most notably, when he ordered a surge in troops to Iraq early last year over the intense objections of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his top commanders in the region.

Bob Woodward's new book calls renewed attention to Bush's problematic decision-making style, but leaves unanswered some key questions. Among them: Were Bush's motivations in pushing through the surge noble or self-serving? And was he, ultimately, right or wrong to do so?

A lot rests on the answer to those questions -- maybe even the November election. And although Woodward doesn't appear to be quite ready to weigh in, he does provide some hints. He accuses Bush of deception and disengagement. He airs top military leaders' well-founded concerns that the surge would do enormous damage to the long-term fighting ability of the armed forces. And he argues that the surge is far from the sole reason for the reduction in violence in Iraq.

He also raises the distinct possibility that domestic political factors were a big factor: He quotes Bush telling soon-to-be-ousted Central Command commander Gen. John P. Abizaid at a National Security Council session in December that the surge would "also help here at home, since for many the measure of success is reduction in violence."

But you could also reasonably read Woodward's book as primarily a complaint that it took Bush so long to act, rather than that he did the wrong thing. Woodward is much more critical of the process than of the decision.

Indeed, conventional wisdom in Washington has coalesced around the notion that surge -- a plan Woodward describes as being masterminded by retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, using his back-channel relationship with Bush and Vice President Cheney -- has been a success.

But the evidence actually suggests that its most dazzling success has been the effect here at home -- precisely the one Bush had in mind.

The surge, among other quite possibly more significant factors, has dramatically reduced violence in Iraq, leading the American public to turn its attention elsewhere, and leaving the issue of withdrawal for the next president to worry about.

But has it led to the sort of Iraqi political reconciliation Bush promised would come as a result? Hardly.

Has it overstrained the army to the breaking point? The stress fractures we see so far, including the incredible burdens on the troops and their families, have yet to fully express themselves.

Has it led to a faster pullout than would have otherwise been possible? Certainly not. Given the political tenor of the country shortly before Bush announced an escalation, a lot of our troops could well have been withdrawn by now had things gone otherwise. Instead, as Bush made clear this morning, there will be more troops in Iraq when he leaves office than there were in January 2007.

Meanwhile, the BBC interviews General Petraeus, who is still offering variations on his "fragile but reversible" assessment. The web summary is titled "No victory in Iraq, says Petraeus":

The outgoing commander of US troops in Iraq, Gen David Petraeus, has said that he will never declare victory there.

In a BBC interview, Gen Petraeus said that recent security gains were "not irreversible" and that the US still faced a "long struggle".

When asked if US troops could withdraw from Iraqi cities by the middle of next year, he said that would be "doable"...

Gen Petraeus took up his role in Iraq in February 2007, as President Bush announced his "surge" plan.

He has overseen its implementation, including the deployment of nearly 30,000 additional troops to trouble spots in Iraq.

In an interview with the BBC's Newsnight programme, Gen Petraeus said that when he took charge in Iraq "the violence was horrific and the fabric of society was being torn apart".

Leaving his post, he said there were "many storm clouds on the horizon which could develop into real problems".

Overall he summed up the situation as "still hard but hopeful", saying that progress in Iraq was "a bit more durable" but that the situation there remained fragile.

He said he did not know that he would ever use the word "victory": "This is not the sort of struggle where you take a hill, plant the flag and go home to a victory parade... it's not war with a simple slogan."

He said al-Qaeda's efforts to portray its jihad in Iraq as going well were "disingenuous". It was, in fact "going poorly", he said.

Of his strategy of establishing joint security stations in key locations, Gen Petraeus said that "you can't secure the people if you don't live with them".

He said it was now fair to say that the Iraqis were standing up as US forces stood down. The confidence and capability of Iraqi forces had increased substantially, he said.

In a post titled " We’ll always do just well enough in Iraq to never leave," John Amato remarks, "Long struggle, not irreversible, still hard, many clouds on the horizon… These aren’t words of praise about Iraq being uttered by the General. Once again we hear the "fragile" word. Is that what success is, fragile?"

I guess Petraeus just doesn't know what military genius and Iraq expert Jonah Goldberg does, since Goldberg crowed that "America is very close to flat out winning in Iraq," thanks almost entirely to the Republicans, of course. (Goldberg's latest bullshit is ably challenged by Warren Street and Blue Girl).

On the one hand, we have deluded and/or dissembling hacks like Joe Lieberman, who's shamelessly trying to have the Senate proclaim "the surge" a success. On the other, if one but reads a decent newspaper - or good roundups by bloggers such as Cernig – one can get a sense of what "fragile" really means. I'm anxious about the presidential debates and more potentially misleading Iraq questions, because the stakes are just too high for that. To date, far too many leading television journalists have pushed the hack view, and have shown but a "fragile" respect for the truth.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)


Anonymous said...

Why, thank you sir!

We will ably challenge wingnut bullshit anywhere we find it!

Kudos to you on this post--excellent resources here.

Suzi Riot said...

If only people would pay attention to the facts. If only Obama would come right out and say that no, the so-called surge did not work and our tax dollars have been used to bribe terrorists so that the Republicans can win an election.

Great work and excellent sources, as usual.