The Danger of the Legend of the Surge

Peter BeinartI still hear conservatives talk about the Surge during the Iraq War. It continues to seem bizarre to me for a few reasons. First, the Surge didn’t work. It just corresponded to the Awakening when moderate Sunnis started fighting against the jihadist elements in Iraq. Things didn’t improve because we sent in an extra 30,000 troops. I thought this had been well established. Second, the Surge didn’t win the war; it just took it from a total catastrophe to a smaller catastrophe. But third and most important, who cares what happened in 2007?! That was almost a decade ago. Why are conservatives continuing to talk about it?

The solution was found in an excellent article by Peter Beinart, The Surge Fallacy. Right about the time of the Surge, conservatives were turning against the neoconservative project in a big way. But all those same people are now back on board. And the reason is the supposed success of the Surge. I suppose it does go along with another favorite conservative myth: the “We weren’t allowed to win in Vietnam!” narrative. By that myth, if only the military had been allowed to drop more bombs — Or nuclear bombs! — then we would have “won” the war. I think of it as the “parking lot” approach to war and it shows that people who push these ideas have no clue what war really is.

But what Beinart calls “the legend of the surge” is even more pernicious:

By sending more troops to Iraq in 2007, George W Bush finally won the Iraq War. Then Barack Obama, by withdrawing US troops, lost it. Because of Obama’s troop withdrawal, and his general refusal to exercise American power, Iraq collapsed, ISIS rose, and the Middle East fell apart. “We had it won, thanks to the surge,” Senator John McCain declared last September. “The problems we face in Iraq today,” Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal argued in May, “I don’t think were because of President Bush’s strength, but rather have come about because of President Obama’s weakness.”

Of course, Bush had not “won” the war. Although the violence was greatly reduced, the Surge itself hadn’t succeeded at it’s main goal: political reconciliation. The point of it was to create a stable political system where the “Sunni and Shia Arabs and its Kurds all felt represented by the government.” This never occurred. It’s not hard to see why. The Shia had been oppressed for a long time. Now they had power and they were going to use it:

In reality, 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 US 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.”

That’s long before 2011 when Obama supposedly screwed everything up by withdrawing troops. But this isn’t to say that Obama is blameless. It is just that the things Obama did to harm the situation (mostly supporting the corrupt, power hungry Nouri al-Maliki) are things that the Republicans agree with. The point is that there was a bad situation under Bush. It got no better under Obama. The problems in Iraq are the result of that, not the withdrawal.

Beinart ended by noting that the Republicans are right back to the hubris that brought us the Iraq War in the first place. But even though most of the Republican candidates for president are talking about sending ground troops into Iraq, that is unlikely to happen. But there is a broader problem:

This line of thinking is troubling nonetheless, because the same wild overestimation of American power that fueled the war in Iraq now fuels the right’s opposition to the nuclear deal with Iran. To hear hawks tell it, the United States can scuttle the current deal, intensify sanctions, threaten war, and — presto — Tehran will capitulate.

That’s even more frightening. But the Republican Party has always seemed like jocks in the locker room before a big game: pumping themselves up as though they can win by will alone. The Iraq War shows that wisdom comes very slowly. And then, with the slightest hint of success, it is jettisoned for their easy bellicosity.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

2 thoughts on “The Danger of the Legend of the Surge

  1. As I recall, at the time of the so-called surge, we were paying the Sunnis not to fight our troops. This was a major reason for the war turning more in our favor at the time.

    • Yeah. That was part of the awakening. The US military did a good job of harnessing the newly open Sunnis.

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