Commentary

Spinned Surge

This article appeared on American Prospect.com March 13, 2007.
The job of neoconservative writers analyzing the Iraq war has largely been to obscure objective analysis and provide talking points for war supporters. Robert Kagan’s column in Sunday’s Washington Post (promptly distributed by the White House in its “Iraq Update” email early Monday) fulfills that role with aplomb. Simultaneously smearing opponents of the war (not to mention journalists) as praying for failure and proclaiming that “the surge is succeeding,” Kagan adds to his regrettable legacy of undue optimism.

There are some basic problems of logic in his attack on the media. Kagan suggests that American journalists are so invested in seeing the surge fail to pacify Iraq that he is forced to “wonder if the Post and other newspapers have a backup plan in case it does.” But then Kagan goes on to use information from, well, American journalists to assemble data indicating that violence in Baghdad has ebbed; that Iraqi attitudes have turned from pessimism; that an oil sharing law is nearing completion; that the Iraqi Ministry of Interior recently conducted a purge of its personnel; and that the Mahdi Army has gone to ground. Kagan closes by pleading that “no one is asking American journalists to start emphasizing the ‘good’ news. All they have to do is report on what is occurring, though it may conflict with their previous judgments.” But, of course, American journalists have provided the very fodder for Mr. Kagan’s argument.

The more troubling aspect of the Kagan piece, however, is the substantive claim: that the surge is working. The first problem with this argument is that the surge has hardly gotten underway yet. Earlier this month, none other than General David Petraeus remarked that “we’ve just started” with the surge and that only two of the five projected brigades had even arrived. The claim that two brigades (less than 10,000 troops) have transformed Baghdad is either mendacious or simply daft. A more sober view comes from President Bush, who recently announced his plan to send almost 5,000 more U.S. troops into Iraq on top of the 21,500 already promised.

A more honest line of argument, which Kagan flirts with making in his article, is that the recent downtick in violence is partly a result of Shia militias having gone to ground in Baghdad, content to sit out the surge as long as possible, wait for it to fail (a failure manifested by Sunni insurgents’ ability to wreak havoc, surge or no surge), and then reemerge as the protectors of the Shia faithful. The recent bombings during the Shiite celebration of Ashura are one alarming indicator that this process easily could unfold.

But the most damning fact about the “surge is working” narrative is that the violence in Iraq always has been cyclical, with dips in violence occurring every year in the months from January through March or April. So, in fact, the decline in violence Kagan observes was entirely predictable, and indeed was predicted. The Pentagon’s own “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq” report pointed out that by the end of 2006, the violence in Iraq had reached its highest level since the war began, and so the downtick should be viewed in that context. But what appears likely to happen is what has happened since the beginning of the war: these temporary downticks do not stop the overall upward trend of violence in Iraq. See page 20 of the most recent “Iraq Index” from the Brookings Institution for glaringly obvious proof of this ratcheting up of violence in the country.

The president and supporters of the war protest that we should “give the surge a chance to succeed” before criticizing it. But since the plan in place defies, for one, the joint Army-Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual authored by General Petraeus himself, this is akin to wishful thinking. (By the metric of Petraeus and countless others, to run a serious counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, we would need 500,000 troops; if we could somehow sequester Baghdad and only fight there, we would need roughly 120,000 troops.)

A miracle in Iraq just may happen, and all Americans would be relieved if it did. It may also happen that Israelis and Palestinians decide that fighting is not in their interests and spontaneously lay down their arms. Banking on such events, though, is an unsound basis for the formation of national policy.

To borrow Kagan’s own formulation, no one is asking neoconservative polemicists to admit how wrong they have been, consistently, about the Iraq war. All they have to do is begin looking at facts and data instead of pretending that wishful thinking and spin can save this disastrous war.

Justin Logan is a foreign policy analyst and a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.