A beloved myth of Official Washington – especially among Republicans, neocons and other supporters of the Iraq War – is the fable of the “successful surge,” how President George W. Bush’s heroic escalation of 30,000 troops in 2007 supposedly “won” that war; it then follows that the current Iraq disaster must be President Barack Obama’s fault.
The appeal of this myth should be obvious. Nearly every “important” person in the U.S. foreign policy establishment and the mainstream media endorsed the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 — and such well-placed and well-paid people do not like to admit that their judgment was so bad that they should be disqualified from holding any responsible position forever.
Further, since almost no one who promoted this criminal and bloody enterprise was held accountable after Mission Accomplished wasn’t, these opinion leaders were still around in 2007 at the time of the “surge” and thus in a position to cite any positive trends as proof of “success.” Many are still around voicing their august opinions – the likes of Sen. John McCain, former Vice President Dick Cheney and neocon theorist Robert Kagan – so they still get to tell the rest of us how really great their judgment was.
On Wednesday, McCain fulminated from the Senate floor, accusing Obama of squandering the “surge,” the success of which he deemed a “fact.” Cheney – along with his daughter Liz – accused the President of “securing his legacy as the man who betrayed our past and squandered our freedom.”
Kagan, who pushed for an invasion of Iraq as early as 1998, attacked Obama for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq — and not committing the U.S. military to the civil war in Syria. Kagan told the New York Times: “It’s striking how two policies driven by the same desire to avoid the use of military power are now converging to create this burgeoning disaster” in Iraq.
But the core of the neocon narrative is that the 2007 “surge” essentially “won” the war in Iraq and that an open-ended U.S. military occupation of Iraq would have kept a lid on the sectarian violence that has periodically ripped the country apart since Bush’s invasion overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003.
There is much wrong about this narrative, including that it was Bush who signed the timeline for total U.S. withdrawal in 2008 and that the Iraqi government insisted that U.S. troops depart under that schedule at the end of 2011. But the greatest fallacy is to pretend that it was Bush’s “surge” that achieved the temporary lull in the sectarian violence and that it achieved its principal goal of resolving the Sunni-Shiite divisions.
Any serious analysis of what happened in Iraq in 2007-08 would trace the decline in Iraqi sectarian violence mostly to strategies that predated the “surge” and were implemented by the U.S. commanding generals in 2006, George Casey and John Abizaid, who wanted as small a U.S. “footprint” as possible to tamp down Iraqi nationalism.
Among their initiatives, Casey and Abizaid ran a highly classified operation to eliminate key al-Qaeda leaders, most notably the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June 2006. Casey and Abizaid also exploited growing Sunni animosities toward al-Qaeda extremists by paying off Sunni militants to join the so-called “Awakening” in Anbar Province, also in 2006.
And, as the Sunni-Shiite sectarian killings reached horrendous levels that year, the U.S. military assisted in the de facto ethnic cleansing of mixed neighborhoods by helping Sunnis and Shiites move into separate enclaves – protected by concrete barriers – thus making the targeting of ethnic enemies more difficult. In other words, the flames of sectarian violence were likely to have abated whether Bush ordered the “surge” or not.
Radical Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr also helped by issuing a unilateral cease-fire, reportedly at the urging of his patrons in Iran who were interested in cooling down regional tensions and speeding up the U.S. withdrawal. By 2008, another factor in the declining violence was the growing awareness among Iraqis that the U.S. military’s occupation indeed was coming to an end. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was demanding a firm timetable for American withdrawal from Bush, who finally capitulated.
Even author Bob Woodward, who had published best-sellers that praised Bush’s early war judgments, concluded that the “surge” was only one factor and possibly not even a major one in the declining violence.
In his book, The War Within, Woodward wrote, “In Washington, conventional wisdom translated these events into a simple view: The surge had worked. But the full story was more complicated. At least three other factors were as important as, or even more important than, the surge.”
Woodward, whose book drew heavily from Pentagon insiders, listed the Sunni rejection of al-Qaeda extremists in Anbar Province and the surprise decision of al-Sadr to order a cease-fire as two important factors. A third factor, which Woodward argued may have been the most significant, was the use of new highly classified U.S. intelligence tactics that allowed for rapid targeting and killing of insurgent leaders. In other words, key factors in the drop in violence had nothing to do with the “surge.”
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And, beyond the dubious impact of the “surge” on the gradual reduction in violence, Bush’s escalation failed to achieve its other stated goals, particularly creating political space so the Sunni-Shiite divisions over issues like oil profits could be resolved. Despite the sacrifice of additional American and Iraqi blood, those compromises did not materialize.
Plus, if you’re wondering what the “surge” and its loosened rules of engagement meant for Iraqis, you should watch the WikiLeaks’ “Collateral Murder” video, which depicts a scene during the “surge” when U.S. firepower mowed down a group of Iraqi men, including two Reuters journalists, as they walked down a street in Baghdad. The U.S. attack helicopters then killed a father and wounded his two children when the man stopped his van in an effort to take survivors to the hospital.
However, in 2008, the still-influential neocons saw an opportunity to rehabilitate their bloody reputations when the numbers of Iraq War casualties declined. The neocons credited themselves and the “successful surge” with the improvement.
As the neocons pushed this “successful surge” myth, they were aided by the mainstream news media, which also had promoted the ill-fated war and was looking for a way to bolster its standing with the public. Typical of this new conventional wisdom, Newsweek published a cover story on the “surge” under the title, “victory at last.” To say otherwise brought you harsh criticism for not giving credit to “the troops.”
The Myth’s Consequences
Thus, the myth grew that Bush’s “surge” had brought Iraqi violence under control and the United States to the brink of “victory.” Gen. David Petraeus, who took command of Iraq after Bush yanked Casey and Abizaid, was elevated into hero status as a military genius.
Also, Defense Secretary Robert Gates received the encomium of “wise man” for implementing the “surge” after Bush fired Donald Rumsfeld in November 2006 for standing behind his field generals and suggesting a faster U.S. troop drawdown in Iraq. (At the time, many Democrats, including then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, misinterpreted Rumsfeld’s dismissal and Gates’s hiring as a sign that Bush would wind down the war when it actually signaled his plan to escalate it.)
With the “successful surge” conventional wisdom firmly established in 2008, media stars pounded Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama for his heresy in doubting the “surge.” In major televised interviews, CBS News’ Katie Couric and ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos demanded that Obama admit he was wrong to oppose the “surge” and that his Republican rival, Sen. McCain, was right to support it.
For weeks, Obama held firm, insisting correctly that the issue was more complicated than his interviewers wanted to admit. He argued that there were many factors behind Iraq’s changed security environment. But ultimately he caved in while being interrogated on Sept. 4, 2008, by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly.
“I think that the surge has succeeded in ways that nobody anticipated,” Obama confessed to O’Reilly. “It’s succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.”
Obama apparently judged that continued resistance to this Washington “group think” was futile. Candidate Obama’s surrender on the “successful surge” myth also was the first sign of his tendency to cave in when faced with a misguided Washington consensus.
His capitulation had other long-term consequences. For one, it gave Gen. Petraeus and Defense Secretary Gates inflated reputations inside Official Washington and greater leverage in 2009 (along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) to force President Obama into accepting a similar “surge” in Afghanistan, what some analysts view as Obama’s biggest national security blunder. [For details, see Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]
The Iraq War’s “surge” also did nothing to change the trajectory of what amounted to a major American national security failure. Perhaps the only real accomplishment of the “surge” was to let President Bush and Vice President Cheney enjoy a “decent interval” between their departure from government in early 2009 and the unceremonious U.S. departure from Iraq in late 2011. That “decent interval” was purchased with the lives of about 1,000 U.S. soldiers and countless thousands of Iraqis.
In the final accounting of the neocon adventure of conquering Iraq, nearly 4,500 American soldiers had died; some 30,000 were wounded; and an estimated $1 trillion was squandered. What was ultimately left behind was not only a devastated Iraqi nation but an authoritarian Shiite government (in place of Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian Sunni government) and an Iraq that had become a regional ally of Iran (rather than a bulwark against Iran).