Commentary Magazine


Topic: the surge

The Battle Over the Surge

In the past I’ve written about Walter Bagehot’s ability to understand the subtleties and ambiguities of public argument and the temptation commentators face to turn decisions into a zero-sum game, as if every policy is obvious and all the arguments line up on one side and none on the other.

My own experience is that things are quite different when you serve in the White House, when the decisions one faces are often complicated, when good arguments can be made on behalf of competing policies, and decisions have to be made on incomplete information based on uncertain assumptions.

An excellent illustration of what I have in mind can be found in this piece by Michael Gordon in Foreign Policy. Based on newly revealed transcripts, it presents the competing views in 2006 of the State Department and the National Security Council over the so-called surge strategy in Iraq.

Read More

In the past I’ve written about Walter Bagehot’s ability to understand the subtleties and ambiguities of public argument and the temptation commentators face to turn decisions into a zero-sum game, as if every policy is obvious and all the arguments line up on one side and none on the other.

My own experience is that things are quite different when you serve in the White House, when the decisions one faces are often complicated, when good arguments can be made on behalf of competing policies, and decisions have to be made on incomplete information based on uncertain assumptions.

An excellent illustration of what I have in mind can be found in this piece by Michael Gordon in Foreign Policy. Based on newly revealed transcripts, it presents the competing views in 2006 of the State Department and the National Security Council over the so-called surge strategy in Iraq.

As Gordon puts it:

Much of the discussion … was dominated by [Secretary of State] Rice’s argument that the United States should abandon a strategy in which “nothing is going right” and instead focus on “core interests” like fighting al Qaeda and contesting Iranian influence. Instead of trying to stop the burgeoning sectarian violence, Rice suggested, the American military might concentrate on averting “mass killings” — attacks on the order of Srebrenica, the 1995 massacre in which more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed.

But [NSC Advisor Stephen] Hadley and his aides on the National Security Council were pushing in the opposite direction and making the case for sending more troops.

It’s now obvious that those who favored the surge were correct and those advocating the alternatives–whether withdrawal or a “light footprint” counterinsurgency or retreating to bases to “ride out” the sectarian violence–were not. Yet even those who believed at the time that the surge was clearly the correct strategy also had to concede that the arguments marshaled by Secretary Rice and her top aides were serious ones and worth taking into account. Were sectarian demons that had been unleashed now uncontainable? Were we beyond the point when no application of forces was likely to make a discernible difference? Had the Sadirist elements defeated the more moderate Shia ones?  

Which brings me to my second point. When asked by ABC’s William Lawrence to look back over the first two years of his presidency, John Kennedy said this:

I would say that the problems are more difficult than I had imagined them to be. The responsibilities placed on the United States are greater than I imagined them to be, and there are greater limitations upon our ability to bring about a favorable result than I had imagined them to be. And I think that is probably true of anyone who becomes President, because there is such a difference between those who advise or speak or legislate, and between the man who must select from the various alternatives proposed and say that this shall be the policy of the United States. It is much easier to make the speeches than it is to finally make the judgments, because unfortunately your advisers are frequently divided. If you take the wrong course, and on occasion I have, the President bears the burden of the responsibility quite rightly. The advisers may move on to new advice.  

It is in the nature of things that in America, the president is the individual who has to sort through competing counsel and decide which course of action to take. The surge was, as Gordon points out, a fateful one for George W. Bush, and in this instance Bush embraced a new war strategy in Iraq that required him to jettison the counsel of his most trusted foreign policy advisor (Secretary Rice, who eventually embraced the surge strategy), to say nothing of the views of most members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; General George W. Casey, Jr., then the commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq; John P. Abizaid, the commander of U.S. Central Command; military analysts; the entire Democratic Party; much of the Republican Party; most of the foreign policy establishment; the Iraq Study Group; and public opinion. It was a remarkable moment in presidential leadership. 

It’s also fair to say, I think, that as much of the world seems to be spinning out of control–with ill-advised decisions by President Obama having undone many of the gains in Iraq and worrisome-to-ominous developments occurring in Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Georgia, North Korea, Mali, Sudan, Russia and elsewhere–President Bush’s successor is learning the hard way that it’s easier to make the speeches than it is to make the judgments.

Read Less

Don’t Let Anti-Shi’ite Bias Play into Al-Qaeda’s Hands

Last week, as Max Boot wrote here, Iraqi security forces took into custody guards employed by Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi, an Iraqi Sunni Arab. Issawi was a former member of the fundamentalist Iraqi Islamic Party and subsequently formed his own party which, in the last elections, ran under the banner of Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya list. The arrest of Issawi’s guards touched off a series of protests in Al-Anbar and other Sunni-dominated areas. Max called the arrest of the body guard a sign of “Maliki’s Dangerous Sectarian Agenda.”

It would be wrong to give Maliki a free pass to do whatever he likes, but it is as dangerous to label legal action against prominent Sunni Arabs automatically illegitimate and driven by sectarianism. To do so would be to give some Sunni Arab Iraqi figures a free pass to conduct terror. In effect, such blind sectarian criticism of Maliki plays into al-Qaeda’s hands.

Read More

Last week, as Max Boot wrote here, Iraqi security forces took into custody guards employed by Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi, an Iraqi Sunni Arab. Issawi was a former member of the fundamentalist Iraqi Islamic Party and subsequently formed his own party which, in the last elections, ran under the banner of Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya list. The arrest of Issawi’s guards touched off a series of protests in Al-Anbar and other Sunni-dominated areas. Max called the arrest of the body guard a sign of “Maliki’s Dangerous Sectarian Agenda.”

It would be wrong to give Maliki a free pass to do whatever he likes, but it is as dangerous to label legal action against prominent Sunni Arabs automatically illegitimate and driven by sectarianism. To do so would be to give some Sunni Arab Iraqi figures a free pass to conduct terror. In effect, such blind sectarian criticism of Maliki plays into al-Qaeda’s hands.

Let’s look at the case of Issawi’s guards: First of all, before the Iraqi government’s actions, there were 22 cases leveled against Issawi’s guards by Sunni Arabs. Perhaps Maliki waited as long as he did because he understood that he would face sectarian blowback. When the judiciary, 10 Sunni judges, reportedly signed off on the warrants against Issawi’s guards, Maliki had no authority to quash the judiciary’s orders. That said, Maliki yesterday released an official response to the protestors, offering to compromise where to do so would not violate the constitution.

Now, I do not agree with many of Maliki’s policies, but it is wrong to tar Iraqi Shi’ites with being Iranian dupes. Distrust between Arab Shi’ites and Iranian Shi’ites is centuries deep. Every Iraqi politician—Kurdish, Arab, or otherwise—will have some contact with Iran. Many would have preferred balance between the United States and Iran, but the U.S. withdrawal undercut Baghdad’s ability to resist many of Iran’s more overbearing demands. Liberal Iraqi intellectual Mustafa al-Kadhimy’s article today in Al-Monitor is very much worth reading on the topic.

Undercutting Maliki—or any other leader who happens to be Shi’ite—won’t resolve the issue; it will only sow the seeds of chaos and create a self-fulfilling prophecy: As ordinary Iraqi Shi’ites see not only sectarian countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia but also the United States work to undercut a Shi’ite prime minister and embrace Sunni officials who, like former Vice President Tariq Hashemi or Issawi’s bodyguards, were likely complicit in terror, they may feel they have no choice but to accept Iran’s embrace. Iranian propaganda often depicts the Islamic Republic as the defender of Shi’ism worldwide, even though many if not most ordinary Shi’ites want little to do with the Iranian government’s interpretation of Shi’ism, Mahdism, and the interplay of religious and political leadership.

The surge was an important military strategy and it achieved important military aims. It was not a political strategy, however: It traded short-term stabilization for long-term instability. Iraq is now paying the price. The major problem with the surge was to convince some reticent Sunni politicians that they need not cooperate within a new order in which, by sheer dint of numbers, they would no longer dominate Iraq. Perhaps Maliki might have done more to integrate Sunnis empowered by the Americans, albeit often they were in extra-constitutional bodies. The sooner some Iraqi Sunni politicians recognize that there will not be some grand “do-over” that redraws Iraq’s political developments over the last decade from scratch, the quicker peace will come to Iraq. To turn a blind eye to Sunni violence and then bash Maliki for moving against it is counterproductive, even more so at a time when Syrian Sunni extremists threaten to export terrorism once again into Iraq.

If the U.S. government, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or Sunni activists feel that Maliki is unfairly targeting the Sunni community, they should demonstrate that the judiciary is ignoring their cases, the executive is ignoring the judiciary, or that Shi’ite politicians (e.g. Muqtada al-Sadr’s gang) are getting a free pass. If Iraqis do not like Maliki, they should find an alternative candidate and pressure for transparent, free and fair elections. What they should not do is simply bash an Iraqi government which appears a lot less sectarian in its functioning than the sometimes cartoonish images of it projected by its adversaries would suggest.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.