What We Learned From The Surge




 
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What We Learned From The Surge
 
April 19th, 2008  
Team Infidel
 
 

Topic: What We Learned From The Surge


What We Learned From The Surge
National Journal
April 19, 2008 The most dispiriting lesson of the surge is that on the crucial political front, Washington is not coping much better than Baghdad.
By Jonathan Rauch
Dear Michael: Five years have passed since you died in Iraq. The war has now gone on longer than any but two full-scale American military conflicts: the Revolutionary War and the war in Vietnam. More than 4,000 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq. As have 127 journalists and 50 media-support workers, more journalists than are known to have died in any previous war.
(Michael Kelly, a former editor of this magazine, was the first American journalist killed over there. Letters to the dead are not standard fare in the columns of Washington magazines. Still, I hope I might be indulged on this sour anniversary.)
Every day, Michael, I still miss your editorship and friendship, your good humor and sharp pen, above all your moral passion.
I enjoy wondering what you would say, if you were around today, about the Bush administration’s foreign policy. You once wrote that a ham sandwich would be better than the Clinton administration at making foreign policy. What sort of sandwich would the Bush administration rate? You were an adventurous moralist; I am a cautious realist. President Bush’s “What the hell, they’ll get used to it” diplomatic style might be more to your liking than it is to mine. Even so, you might join me in seeing the Bush foreign policy as a ham sandwich minus the ham. Poor flavor, worse nourishment.
In one respect, however, I’m confident that you would admire President Bush. At a time when Iraq seemed lost, he changed generals, switched tactics, and doubled down with more troops. Conventional wisdom rolled its eyes, but today there is no gainsaying that Bush has retrieved his policy from the brink of catastrophe.
So where are we now? “It seems to me,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden, D-Del., said in hearings last week, “that we are stuck where we started before the surge: with 140,000 troops in Iraq—and no end in sight.” Biden was half right. Yes, the United States still has 140,000 troops in Iraq with no end in sight. But, no, we are not back where we started. Thanks to the surge, we’ve learned a few things.
To begin with, we have learned that the U.S. military can cope with counter-insurgency. This is important new information. Before the surge, effective counter-insurgency had come to seem simply beyond the Pentagon’s reach. The Army appeared stuck in a counterproductive “Kill the bad guys” mind-set. But Army Gen. David Petraeus has done a masterly job of cultivating, buying, and exploiting Sunni cooperation in the fight against Al Qaeda’s Iraq franchise.
Cooperation, of course, is a far cry from loyalty. The Sunni “Sons of Iraq,” as the counterinsurgents are known, are rented, not owned, and the Pentagon may be inadvertently training them for a future civil war. Yet the caveats don’t obviate the larger point: Now that the Army has learned counterinsurgency, the United States has a useful weapon in Iraq. In that important respect, the surge has improved U.S. options.
On the other hand, we have also learned that the Iraqi central government can’t cope and is still far from being able to. Its recent, unsuccessful effort to wrest Basra from Shiite militias suggested some progress. But the operation also showed that Iraq’s security forces have a long way to go before they can win on their own.
The much bigger problem is the corruption, incompetence, and sectarianism of the government for which they fight (or flee). Michèle Flournoy, the president of the Center for a New American Security, spent two weeks in February traveling through 10 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. In recent testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, she gave this report: “From Sunni tribal and business leaders in Baghdad and the west to Shia mayors and governors in the center and south, mounting frustration with the incompetence, dysfunction, and corruption of the central government was palpable and universal.” Though this is not new information, it extinguishes the hope that security was most of what the Iraqi government needed to get its act together.
America has seen this drama before. In Act 1 of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon misunderstands the conflict and relies on an attrition strategy and search-and-destroy tactics that are useless or worse against an insurgency. In Act 2, after years of losing, a new general switches to counterinsurgency methods that work much better, pushing the enemy back on its heels.
Act 3, in which the United States loses the war anyway, is controversial. Some observers blame an American failure of will for relinquishing hard-won gains. Other observers argue, however, that the fundamental and fatal failure was in Saigon, not Washington. American strategy depended on converting U.S.-provided military gains into a South Vietnamese government that could defend itself and was worth defending, but Saigon was a basket case. Successful tactics were succeeding to no purpose, because the strategy had failed.
Does the administration have a viable strategy in Iraq? Reasonable people debate the point. Yes, says Peter Feaver, a Duke University political scientist and former Bush administration official who helped formulate the surge. “At last,” he writes in Commentary magazine, “the United States has a sustainable strategy for Iraq with a reasonable chance of success.”
In this view, keeping U.S. forces in Iraq while helping the Iraqis build a state and nudging them toward accommodation is a strategy, not a tactic. Bush, Petraeus, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, all take this view. McCain, in fact, takes it to the point of Herbert Hooverism, promising, “Success is within reach.”
Skeptics counter that what Bush has is not a strategy but merely a tactic. “I believe the president has no strategy for success in Iraq,” Biden said in a speech this month. “His plan is to muddle through—and hand the problem off to his successor.” Tellingly, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking Republican and one of Washington’s leading foreign-policy thinkers, agrees. “Simply appealing for more time to make progress is insufficient,” he said in hearings last week. “We need a strategy that anticipates a political endgame and employs every plausible means to achieve it.” Asked whether Lugar thinks Petraeus and Bush have presented such a strategy, a spokesman replied, “The simple answer is no.”
What I think I’ve learned from the surge is that Bush and McCain are right. The surge’s gains are real and should not be thrown away. But Democrats, Lugar, and other skeptics are also right. Bush and McCain have not figured out a way to build on the surge.
This is not for want of strategic ideas. A succession of expert witnesses offered an assortment of suggestions in Senate hearings earlier this month. Here are the leading contenders.
*Instead of propping up the central government in Baghdad, federalize Iraq, decentralizing security and many other state functions.
*Instead of pleading with Iraqis to share power, lock the United Nations, the neighbors, and the Iraqis in a room and broker a deal backed by international muscle and regional support.
*Instead of seeking a national political accommodation, stitch together a patchwork of local cease-fires and enforce them with U.S. and other peacekeeping forces.
*Instead of unconditional engagement (the Bush-McCain approach) or unconditional disengagement (the Democrats’ preferred approach), go with conditional engagement, making continued U.S. support contingent on progress in Baghdad.
The time to be vigorously debating these and other strategic options would be before the surge’s gains dissipate; before America’s deployment and influence in Iraq wane; and before developments there force our hand. Now, in other words.
Oddly, however, you don’t hear leading members of either party debating them. Bush and McCain don’t want to concede that the current strategy may be inadequate, so they harp on the surge’s tactical success. The Democrats don’t want to offer strategic proposals that concede that America may need to stick around a while in Iraq, so they harp on Bush’s strategic failures.
With the economy in trouble and Bush blocking any change of course in Iraq until next year, maybe it is unrealistic to expect politics to address the real question. That question is not “Is the surge working?” It is “What else needs to be done to make the surge work?”
The 2008 election cycle is ideally timed to take up this question—if only someone would. Maybe someone will. So far, however, the most dispiriting lesson of the surge is that on the crucial political front, which is where the war’s outcome will ultimately be determined, Washington is not coping much better than Baghdad.
 


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