Redefining Success in Iraq

January 15, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared on American Prospect​.com on January 15, 2008.

One year after President Bush announced that additional troops would be sent to Iraq, the pundits and armchair strategists are prepared to render a verdict. “The surge worked,” declare Sens. McCain and Lieberman. Radio talk‐​show host Hugh Hewitt explains that U.S. troops have delivered a decisive victory, sentiments echoed by Heritage Foundation fellow Tony Blankley. Washington Post editors ask why, in light of the clear success of the surge, so few Democrats are willing to admit that they had been wrong to oppose the escalation in the first place.

In fact, the entire narrative surrounding the surge has changed over the course of the last 12 months. As initially conceived, the surge was intended to make a space for political reconciliation among the Iraqi people that would, in the president’s words, “hasten the day our troops begin coming home.” But after a year in which the Iraqi government has, with the possible exception of the new agreement on de‐​Baathification passed over the weekend, failed to enact and implement the crucial political benchmarks spelled out when the president announced his strategy, the advocates of the surge now argue that we cannot withdraw now lest Iraq fall back into chaos.

Our “gains are thrilling but not yet permanent,” McCain and Lieberman intone, and therefore, “it would be a mistake to commit ourselves preemptively” to further troop cuts. In other words, the surge strategy, marketed to the American people as a vehicle for hastening the end of the U.S. military presence in Iraq, is now being cited as a justification for keeping U.S. troops there indefinitely. Success, once synonymous with withdrawal (remember “As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down”?) now means exactly the opposite.

But while such sentiments are widespread inside of the Beltway, the American public at large has proved stubbornly impervious to such talk. Strong majorities, 60 percent or more in some polls, believe that the costs of the war have already exceeded whatever benefits we might derive from it, and they are therefore unlikely to embrace an indefinite military presence that will cost far more. Further evidence that the public’s appetite for a long war has abated can be found in the fact that a majority of Americans still favor withdrawing troops from Iraq according to a fixed timetable, this despite the fact that American casualties have declined sharply over the last few months.

No one disputes that the security situation in Iraq has improved, and our troops deserve much of the credit. They have adapted to a new form of warfare, one that exposes them to greater risk in the short term in the hope that closer contact with the population will win the respect, and ultimately the support, of the Iraqi people against the insurgents. So far, so good. Many Iraqis seem to appreciate the enormous sacrifices and risks that our troops are making on their behalf every day. And there are a number of stories and anecdotes of Iraqis taking charge of security in their towns and neighborhoods.

But the deals cut over the past year with predominantly Sunni tribes also carry risks. If these groups remain opposed to reconciliation with the Shiite majority, arming these individuals might prove a short‐​term strategy that cuts against our medium‐​to‐​long‐​term objective of a stable, Iraqi government that is capable of defending itself. Absent political reconciliation on a national level, we might actually be arming several sides of a multisided civil war.

Advocates for keeping troops in Iraq seize upon fears of an incipient civil war to make their case. Sens. McCain and Lieberman don’t want the troops to come home. Certainly not any time soon, and perhaps not ever.

Critics pounced last summer when President Bush and Secretary of Defense Gates drew parallels between Iraq and Korea, where U.S. troops have been deployed since 1950. Sen. McCain apparently sees nothing wrong with such comparisons; last week he said U.S. troops might be in Iraq for 100 years.

The surge was certainly successful in one sense: it took sufficient steam out of the “get out now” movement to effectively halt congressional efforts to force a troop withdrawal. It also allowed Sen. McCain to resurrect his moribund campaign. “Thank God [Iraq]‘s off the front pages,” the leading proponent for the war told reporters on board the Straight Talk Express.

The vast majority of Americans, however, are still thinking about Iraq, even if it is “off the front pages,” and their calculation of costs and benefits is very different from Sen. McCain’s. For these people, myself included, 100 years in Iraq, at a cost of $100 billion or more every year, doesn’t look like success. It still looks like failure.

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