Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iraq surge

A Tale of Two Surges

In Friday’s “Notable & Quotable,” the Wall Street Journal quoted then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s famous remark at the September 11, 2007 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, where she told Gen. David Petraeus his testimony on the Iraq “surge” required “the willing suspension of disbelief.” It was her sophisticated way of telling him she thought he was peddling fiction.

That day, Gen. Petraeus also testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which Barack Obama and John Kerry were members. Obama told Petraeus he wanted “an immediate removal of our troops” and a policy that “surges our diplomacy.” He wanted “in a bipartisan way to figure out how to best move forward, to extricate this from the day-to-day politics that infects Washington.” Clinton and Obama would later admit to each other that their opposition to the surge had been political.

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In Friday’s “Notable & Quotable,” the Wall Street Journal quoted then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s famous remark at the September 11, 2007 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, where she told Gen. David Petraeus his testimony on the Iraq “surge” required “the willing suspension of disbelief.” It was her sophisticated way of telling him she thought he was peddling fiction.

That day, Gen. Petraeus also testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which Barack Obama and John Kerry were members. Obama told Petraeus he wanted “an immediate removal of our troops” and a policy that “surges our diplomacy.” He wanted “in a bipartisan way to figure out how to best move forward, to extricate this from the day-to-day politics that infects Washington.” Clinton and Obama would later admit to each other that their opposition to the surge had been political.

Kerry told Petraeus the day was “historic”–because “not since the country heard from General Westmoreland, almost 40 years ago, has an active-duty general played such an important role in the national debate.” Kerry said he wanted to remind everyone that:

[A]lmost half the names that found their way etched into the Vietnam Wall after Westmoreland’s testimony found their way there when our leaders had acknowledged, in retrospect, that they knew the policy was not working, and would not work. And all you need do to underline this chilling fact is read Defense Secretary McNamara’s books …

The following year, Barack Obama was elected president, and faced in his first year the need for a “surge” in Afghanistan. He approved it only after an excruciatingly long series of White House meetings and gave the military less than they had requested. In an excerpt from his memoir yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recounted the November 2009 Oval Office meeting with Gen. Petraeus and Adm. Michael Mullen in which Obama discussed the basis on which he had decided to go forward, with Obama and Biden giving what they described as an “order” for the military to follow Obama’s decision:

That Sunday meeting was unlike any I ever attended in the Oval Office … I was shocked. I had never heard a president explicitly frame a decision as a direct order. With the U.S. military, it is completely unnecessary … Obama’s “order,” at Biden’s urging, demonstrated the complete unfamiliarity of both men with the American military culture … In the end, this major national security debate had been driven more by the White House staff and domestic politics than any other in my entire experience. The president’s political operatives wanted to make sure that everyone knew the Pentagon wouldn’t get its way.

The next day, Obama announced his decision in his televised West Point speech, in which he said the additional troops would “allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011 … taking into account conditions on the ground.” Obama had simultaneously announced a surge and a withdrawal–a counter-productive combination. The Gates excerpt does not deal with what followed, but Jonathan Alter summarized it succinctly in his 2010 book on Obama’s first year as president:

It didn’t take long for Clinton, Gates, and Petraeus to begin endorsing nation-building and exploiting their “conditions on the ground” loophole. Testifying the day after Obama’s speech, Gates told a House committee, “I have adamantly opposed deadlines. I opposed them in Iraq and I opposed them in Afghanistan.” At the Pentagon the message coursing through the building was the summer of 2011 didn’t really mean the summer of 2011. The president was unperturbed. Obama’s attitude was “I’m president. I don’t give a shit what they say. I’m drawing down those troops” said one senior official who saw him nearly every day.

By early 2011, Gates concluded that Obama “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.” It had been the “good war” for purposes of the 2008 campaign, a way for Obama to distinguish his opposition to the Iraq war. But once in office, it became for Obama, as Rich Lowry writes, “the insincere war,” fought half-heartedly, with a goal not of winning but getting out.

More than three-fourths of the names on some future Afghanistan memorial wall will be those of American soldiers who died under a commander-in-chief contemptuous of the military, whose foreign policy was (to use Bret Stephens’s expression in this incisive video on the Gates book) “the conduct of politics by other means”–a chilling fact now underlined by a former secretary of defense’s book.

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No Need to Repent for Support of Iraq War

The tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War has occasioned a lot of interesting and anguished appraisals. For those of us who supported the decision to invade, all such occasions present a chance for reflection on what went wrong—and right—and whether our backing for the war effort was misbegotten. Most of those who initially supported the decision to go to war—including our current secretaries of state and defense—long ago disowned their early hawkishness. For my part, I have resisted the urge to “repent,” as critics of the war effort would have it.

I should make clear that, unlike some supporters of the war effort, I would not have backed the invasion if I had known what we now know—that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction. There were, to be sure, secondary reasons to act, in particular the desire to implant a democracy in the middle of the Middle East. But, while I am a firm believer in democracy promotion, I don’t believe that its spread justifies exposing our soldiers to danger unless there is an overriding threat to our own security. In the case of Iraq, it was almost universally believed prior to the invasion that such a threat existed: not just the CIA but the Mossad, MI6, and every other allied intelligence agency agreed that Saddam had WMD. Heck, even his own generals believed it—Saddam out-bluffed himself. 

That’s why there was so much support in this country for the initial invasion—more support, it is worth recalling, than there was for the Gulf War precipitated by Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait. I feel no shame in being part of the 75 percent of Americans who believed at the beginning that this was a war worth waging. I am equally satisfied to have been part of the minority (roughly 40 percent of those surveyed) who continued to support the war even as it was going badly in the years from 2003 to 2007.

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The tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War has occasioned a lot of interesting and anguished appraisals. For those of us who supported the decision to invade, all such occasions present a chance for reflection on what went wrong—and right—and whether our backing for the war effort was misbegotten. Most of those who initially supported the decision to go to war—including our current secretaries of state and defense—long ago disowned their early hawkishness. For my part, I have resisted the urge to “repent,” as critics of the war effort would have it.

I should make clear that, unlike some supporters of the war effort, I would not have backed the invasion if I had known what we now know—that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction. There were, to be sure, secondary reasons to act, in particular the desire to implant a democracy in the middle of the Middle East. But, while I am a firm believer in democracy promotion, I don’t believe that its spread justifies exposing our soldiers to danger unless there is an overriding threat to our own security. In the case of Iraq, it was almost universally believed prior to the invasion that such a threat existed: not just the CIA but the Mossad, MI6, and every other allied intelligence agency agreed that Saddam had WMD. Heck, even his own generals believed it—Saddam out-bluffed himself. 

That’s why there was so much support in this country for the initial invasion—more support, it is worth recalling, than there was for the Gulf War precipitated by Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait. I feel no shame in being part of the 75 percent of Americans who believed at the beginning that this was a war worth waging. I am equally satisfied to have been part of the minority (roughly 40 percent of those surveyed) who continued to support the war even as it was going badly in the years from 2003 to 2007.

While I can understand why so many jumped off the bandwagon when it started to roll into a ditch, I believe this was fundamentally a short-sighted decision designed to assuage the conscience of erstwhile war-supporters at the cost of doing even greater damage to American interests. Just because we made lots of mistakes in the early going in Iraq doesn’t mean we could have simply left while the country was collapsing into civil war. The result would have looked like Syria today, only the U.S. would have been directly responsible for unleashing all that mayhem. That would have been an immoral and costly mistake.

Having started a war, we had an obligation to see it through to a satisfactory conclusion. Just because the war turned out to be a lot harder and bloodier than anyone could have imagined at the outset doesn’t mean we could have simply abandoned it—any more than we could have abandoned the Civil War when the Union armies did not win a quick victory at First Bull Run or abandoned the Second World War after the setbacks of Pearl Harbor and Kasserine Pass. 

Of course, you may retort, it is easy for me to say that—I wasn’t one of the soldiers on the frontlines at risk of death and dismemberment. That’s true, although, unlike many war opponents, I did visit Iraq regularly to see conditions for myself. Admittedly I came as a (relatively) coddled visitor—not as a frontline grunt. But at least it did give me a chance to ask soldiers for their own views of the war. And while some wondered what it was all about, the majority of military personnel I spoke to were against immediate withdrawal because they knew the chaos that would result.  

The real proof of military attitudes lay in the fact that, although the army had trouble recruiting during the worst years of the war (which also happened to be boom years back home), retention remained strong, especially in frontline combat units exposed to the most risk. U.S. troops are volunteers; they can vote with their feet if they no longer want to serve; and while some were there involuntarily because of “stop-loss” orders, most remained ready to fight, even if they were fighting primarily for their buddies and their unit rather than for some grand conception of Iraqi democracy.

Was their sacrifice worthwhile? From today’s vantage point, unfortunately, the answer looks increasingly to be “no”—but it did not need to turn out that way. The “surge” of 2007-2008 reduced violence by 90 percent and set Iraq on track to become a functional democracy. Alas, President Obama did not show much commitment to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement that would have kept American forces there past 2011. The result is that U.S. influence in Iraq has plummeted while Iranian influence has soared. Left to his own devices, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is acting in increasingly sectarian fashion that is alienating the Sunnis and allowing al-Qaeda in Iraq—virtually defeated by 2009—to spring back to life. In short, we have managed to squander many of the gains that U.S. troops fought so hard to achieve during the long, bloody years of war.

But all is not lost yet. Thanks to its oil revenues, Iraq has a robust economy with some of the highest growth rates in the world. Nor is it entirely lost to the West, as Maliki’s willingness to have the CIA train his counter-terrorism forces indicates. There is still a chance, however scant, that Iraq will meet the fondest hopes of invasion supporters who wanted to establish a new democracy. It is just not as big of a chance as it was a couple of years ago.

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AQI Comeback Is Not Indictment of Surge

The “surge” which turned around the situation in Iraq in 2007-2008–at a time when the war appeared lost–is now history, but the debate about what actually happened continues. It is indeed heating up because of the recent resurgence of al-Qaeda in both Iraq and Syria. Does this mean that the “success” of the surge was overhyped? Short answer: Not really.

To see why the surge worked, there is no better source than this article by political scientists Stephen Biddle (my colleague at the Council on Foreign Relations), Jeffrey Friedman, and Jacob Shapiro in the new issue of International Security. They reject the commonly heard arguments of surge skeptics that violence declined because insurgents were bribed into joining the Sunni Awakening and that violence had run its course anyway because of sectarian cleansing. They write:

This evidence suggests that a synergistic interaction between the surge and the Awakening is the best explanation for why violence declined in Iraq in 2007. Without the surge, the Anbar Awakening would probably not have spread fast or far enough. And without the surge, sectarian violence would likely have continued for a long time to come—the pattern and distribution of the bloodshed offers little reason to believe that it had burned itself out by mid-2007. Yet the surge, though necessary, was insufficient to explain 2007’s sudden reversal in fortunes. Without the Awakening to thin the insurgents’ ranks and unveil the holdouts to U.S. troops, the violence would probably have remained very high until well after the surge had been withdrawn and well after U.S. voters had lost patience with the war.

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The “surge” which turned around the situation in Iraq in 2007-2008–at a time when the war appeared lost–is now history, but the debate about what actually happened continues. It is indeed heating up because of the recent resurgence of al-Qaeda in both Iraq and Syria. Does this mean that the “success” of the surge was overhyped? Short answer: Not really.

To see why the surge worked, there is no better source than this article by political scientists Stephen Biddle (my colleague at the Council on Foreign Relations), Jeffrey Friedman, and Jacob Shapiro in the new issue of International Security. They reject the commonly heard arguments of surge skeptics that violence declined because insurgents were bribed into joining the Sunni Awakening and that violence had run its course anyway because of sectarian cleansing. They write:

This evidence suggests that a synergistic interaction between the surge and the Awakening is the best explanation for why violence declined in Iraq in 2007. Without the surge, the Anbar Awakening would probably not have spread fast or far enough. And without the surge, sectarian violence would likely have continued for a long time to come—the pattern and distribution of the bloodshed offers little reason to believe that it had burned itself out by mid-2007. Yet the surge, though necessary, was insufficient to explain 2007’s sudden reversal in fortunes. Without the Awakening to thin the insurgents’ ranks and unveil the holdouts to U.S. troops, the violence would probably have remained very high until well after the surge had been withdrawn and well after U.S. voters had lost patience with the war.

I find that conclusion to be squarely in line with the facts as I discovered them for myself during my trips to Iraq in 2007-2008. Neither the surge nor the Sunni Awakening would have succeeded by itself; together they turned the tide and decimated al-Qaeda in Iraq. The fact that AQI has now made a comeback is no indictment of the surge; it is, rather, an indictment of Prime Minister Maliki’s recent leadership and of the Obama administration’s inability or unwillingness to extend the mandate of U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011.

It often takes decades to solidify the gains won on any battlefield. If U.S. troops had left Europe in 1945–as they did in 1919–it is fair to speculate that World War II would not be seen as the “good war”; it might even be seen, like World  War I, as a military victory undone by political defeat afterward. So too, if the U.S. had left South Korea after the end of fighting in 1953. It took decades of commitment to harvest the gains won on the battlefield by our soldiers. We have not made that commitment in Iraq, and so the result is to allow a once-defeated terrorist group to stage a comeback. The same thing happened in Afghanistan in the past decade: the Taliban were truly defeated, if not totally annihilated, in 2001, but our inattention and unwillingness to make a commitment to building a durable post-Taliban state allowed them to stage a comeback.

In war victory is seldom final; it is almost always conditional and provisional. President Obama has lost sight of that truth in Iraq, as President Bush lost sight of it in Afghanistan, and the result is needless fighting. But that in no way slights the achievements of either the soldiers and spies who brought down the Taliban in the fall of 2001 or those who routed al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-2008.

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