The Surge and American Military Triumphalism

Right-wing pundit Michael Barone has published a column on the surge in Iraq that may be the clearest expression so far of the American triumphalism over the U.S. military and Iraq that emerged in 2007. The current popularity of that idea reflects the degree to which the apologists for war, having been discredited earlier on Iraq, are now on the offensive.

Barone's theme is he "lessons to be learned" from what he calls the "dazzling success of the surge strategy in Iraq". The first lesson, he suggests, is that "just about no mission is impossible for the United States military". A year ago, he writes, everyone thought that "containing the violence in Iraq was impossible", but not, "we have seen it done".

Intoxicated by the hosannahs bestowed on Gen. David Petreaus's strategy, Barone pushes the military triumphalist creed to a new level. He goes so far as to assert the inevitability of American military triumph, regardless of the circumstances of any war. Barone says it's simply a matter of finding the right general with the right strategy. He points to the examples of George Washington at Yorktown, Lincoln and the civil war and Roosevelt and World War II.

And then there was Vietnam. Many Americans have been under the impression that the United States did not prevail in Vietnam, mainly because a powerful nationalist movement had mobilized Vietnamese against foreign domination since the end of the World War II. For Barone and true believers in the efficacy of American military power, however, the United States actually won the Vietnam War, and it was all because of the brilliant strategy of Gen. Creighton Abrams. The only reason they can't celebrate that victory fully, Barone insists, is that Congress refused to "allow the aid the United States had promised".

That now familiar explanation of why the American defeat in Vietnam was actually a victory may be the most astonishing feat of rewriting history ever accomplished by the apologists for a criminal war. Let's just recapitulate briefly what actually happened: Nixon and Kissinger had begun withdrawn U.S. troops from Vietnam beginning in 1969. The North Vietnamese were not stupid, and they withdraw most of their troops from South Vietnam during 1970 and 1971 while that U.S. withdrawal was proceeding to reduce their losses. That relative North Vietnamese stand-down in the war allowed the United States and the Saigon regime to gain control over large areas of South Vietnam for the first time since 1960. The U.S. military and apologists for the war claimed that it was all because Abrams had followed such a brilliant strategy.

Then North Vietnam struck across the demilitarized zone in spring 1972, undoing most of that control and forcing Nixon and Kissinger to negotiate the Paris Agreement of January 1973. Two years later, the Saigon regime simply crumbled in the face of a second North Vietnamese offensive across the DMZ, despite the fact that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam had more assistance from the United States than Hanoi had from its Communist allies. That's why the "stab in the back" myth had to be invented by those who political fortunes were tied to the fortunes of the U.S. war.

That brings us to the alleged "dazzling success" of the surge in Iraq. Just as the triumphalist narrative on Vietnam turns a real defeat into an imagined victory, the narrative now being constructed by Barone and others on Iraq tries to make a pointless military occupation that cannot prevail in the end into a glorious triumph of U.S. military power.

Again, let's recapitulate. In 2003 U.S. military forces destroyed the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein and installed a Shiite regime in its stead. The Sunnis predictably launched a military resistance, and the U.S. military began its own war against Sunni insurgents. The presence of a U.S . military occupation force in an Islamic country with some of Islam's holiest sites predictably incited much greater popular support among Sunnis, both within Iraq and in neighboring Sunni countries, for jihadi extremists aligned with al Qaeda.

Thus al Qaeda, which had practically no support in Iraq in 2003, quickly became a major force in 2003 and 2004. By 2005, however, the tensions between al Qaeda and the predominantly Baathist nationalist Sunni insurgents had reached the point of open warfare. That warfare had become even more violent during 2006. The main non-al Qaeda Sunni resistance groups tried to negotiate a peace agreement with the United States in 2005-2006, but Bush refused.

By 2007, however, the Bush administration had changed sides in Iraq. It was more concerned with Shiite forces they associated with Iran than with the Sunni resistance. The United States finally began allowing them to police their own cities - something the Sunnis themselves had been proposing since 2005 but which Bush had refused to approve. The nationalist Sunnis have shown they were perfectly capable of taking care of al Qaeda themselves if the United States would only stop attacking them and get out of the way, which is what they had been saying all along.

However the problem for the U.S. military is now Shiite resistance to the occupation in the form of the Mahdi Army. It is part guerrilla army and part government security force, and it is far larger than the Sunni armed resistance was when the U.S. military admitted that it could gain control over it. For all the brave talk by the Bush administration about bottom-up reconciliation, which suggests that end of resistance is coming, the Shiite struggle against the occupation led by Moqtada al-Sadr is still in an early phase of its development.

The triumphalist vision embraced by Barone and large segments of the American political elite and news media thus depends on an understanding of the conflict that omits all the facts that are inconvenient. Unfortunately for the triumphalists, those happen to be the facts that are most central to the problem.

The truth that the triumphalists can never accept is that, once a large part of the population is mobilized to oppose U.S. domination, U.S. military power becomes the main problem rather than part of the solution. Ironically, there is reason to believe that, after nearly five years of war in Iraq, the U.S. military leadership - including Petraeus himself - now understand that reality. It is the armchair triumphalists like Michael Barone who believe that it is really American military power that is winning in Iraq.

Unfortunately Barone has plenty of company in what Ari Berman once called "the strategic class".

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