Iraq: A More Sober Assessment of the Surge

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One of the most frustrating elements of the media’s coverage and the government’s claims about Iraq has been that there has been no nuance: either the war was necessarily to defend Americans from mushroom clouds, the war was a complete failure, or now, the war is a stunning success, due to the leadership of General Petraeus and the “surge.” The narrative is always uncomplicated, and unfortunately, incomplete.

Last night, while doing a little reading, I came across Steven Simon’s assessment of the surge in Foreign Affairs. Simon, a Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, makes a compelling case that short-term gains achieved because of the surge are sowing the seeds for a long term disaster in Iraq. He writes:

Unfortunately, such claims misconstrue the causes of the recent fall in violence and, more important, ignore a fatal flaw in the strategy. The surge has changed the situation not by itself but only in conjunction with several other developments: the grim successes of ethnic cleansing, the tactical quiescence of the Shiite militias, and a series of deals between U.S. forces and Sunni tribes that constitute a new bottom-up approach to pacifying Iraq. The problem is that this strategy to reduce violence is not linked to any sustainable plan for building a viable Iraqi state. If anything, it has made such an outcome less likely, by stoking the revanchist fantasies of Sunni Arab tribes and pitting them against the central government and against one another. In other words, the recent short-term gains have come at the expense of the long-term goal of a stable, unitary Iraq.

It’s a compelling piece that goes well beyond the surface analysis of casualty counts (did we learn nothing from Vietnam?) and the importance of first hand visits to make determinations about the situation in Iraq. The piece was the administration has failed to do from the beginning of this conflict: anticipate beyond the moment to attempt to evaluate the long-term consequences of our actions. While President Bush and his chief cheerleader John McCain desperately grasp for any sign of success, trumpeting each as signs of our inevitable victory and the Wall Street Journal un-ironically publishes yet another claim of success by Frederick Kagan, we need to be asking ourselves what the end game in Iraq is.

John McCain and President Bush earnestly seem to believe that if we want a stable, democratic Iraq badly enough, it will just happen. The details get a little fuzzy as to just how that will happen.

Meanwhile, Simon make a strong argument that the likely outcome will be an Iraq carved up by warlords and torn by sectarian violence:

The surge may have brought transitory successes — although if the spate of attacks in February is any indication, the decrease in violence may already be over — but it has done so by stoking the three forces that have traditionally threatened the stability of Middle Eastern states: tribalism, warlordism, and sectarianism. States that have failed to control these forces have ultimately become ungovernable, and this is the fate for which the surge is preparing Iraq. A strategy intended to reduce casualties in the short term will ineluctably weaken the prospects for Iraq’s cohesion over the long run.

It’s time to demand more from our government and the media. We’ve listened for five years to overly optimistic projections about the American project in Iraq, but our political leaders and presidential candidate owe us (and the troops on the ground) more than appeals to patriotism and hopefulness: they owe us a plausible strategy to achieve American aims in Iraq.

Does anyone really expect John McCain to do that?

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it’s a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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