s the fifth anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom nears, the fabulists
are again trying to weave their own version of the war. The latest myth
is that the "surge" is working.
's pithy formulation, the United States is now "kicking
. The gallant Gen.
, having been given the right tools, has performed
miracles, redeeming a situation that once appeared hopeless. Sen.
has gone so far as to declare that "we are winning in
Iraq." While few others express themselves quite so categorically, McCain's
remark captures the essence of the emerging story line: Events have
(yet again) reached a turning point. There, at the far end of the tunnel,
light flickers. Despite the hand-wringing of the defeatists and naysayers,
From the hallowed halls of the
American Enterprise Institute waft facile assurances that all will
come out well. AEI's Reuel Marc Gerecht assures us that the moment to
acknowledge "democracy's success in Iraq" has arrived. To his colleague
Michael Ledeen, the explanation for the turnaround couldn't be clearer:
"We were the stronger horse, and the Iraqis recognized it." In an essay
entitled "Mission Accomplished" that is being touted by the AEI crowd,
Bartle Bull, the foreign editor of the British magazine Prospect, instructs
us that "Iraq's biggest questions have been resolved." Violence there
"has ceased being political." As a result, whatever mayhem still lingers
is "no longer nearly as important as it was." Meanwhile, Frederick W.
Kagan, an AEI resident scholar and the arch-advocate of the surge, announces
that the "credibility of the prophets of doom" has reached "a low ebb."
Presumably Kagan and his comrades would have us believe that recent
events vindicate the prophets who in 2002-03 were promoting preventive
war as a key instrument of U.S. policy. By shifting the conversation
to tactics, they seek to divert attention from flagrant failures of
basic strategy. Yet what exactly has the surge wrought? In substantive
terms, the answer is: not much.
As the violence in
Anbar province abates, the political and economic dysfunction enveloping
Iraq has become all the more apparent. The recent agreement to rehabilitate
Baathists notwithstand ing, signs of lasting Sunni-Shiite reconciliation
are scant. The United States has acquired a ramshackle, ungovernable
and unresponsive dependency that is incapable of securing its own borders
or managing its own affairs. More than three years after then-national
Condoleezza Rice handed President Bush a note announcing that "Iraq
is sovereign," that sovereignty remains a fiction.
A nation-building project launched in the confident expectation that
the United States would repeat in Iraq the successes it had achieved
Japan after 1945 instead compares unfavorably with the U.S. response
to Hurricane Katrina. Even today, Iraqi electrical generation meets
barely half the daily national requirements. Baghdad households now
receive power an average of 12 hours each day -- six hours fewer than
Saddam Hussein ruled. Oil production still has not returned to pre-invasion
levels. Reports of widespread fraud, waste and sheer ineptitude in the
administration of U.S. aid have become so commonplace that they barely
last a news cycle. (Recall, for example, the 110,000 AK-47s, 80,000
pistols, 135,000 items of body armor and 115,000 helmets intended for
Iraqi security forces that, according to the
Government Accountability Office,
the Pentagon cannot account for.) U.S. officials repeatedly complain,
to little avail, about the paralyzing squabbling inside the Iraqi parliament
and the rampant corruption within Iraqi ministries. If a primary function
of government is to provide services, then the government of Iraq can
hardly be said to exist.
Moreover, recent evidence suggests that the United States is tacitly
abandoning its efforts to create a truly functional government in Baghdad.
By offering arms and bribes to Sunni insurgents -- an initiative that
has been far more important to the temporary reduction in the level
of violence than the influx of additional American troops -- U.S. forces
have affirmed the fundamental irrelevance of the political apparatus
bunkered inside the
Rather than fostering political reconciliation, accommodating Sunni
tribal leaders ratifies the ethnic cleansing that resulted from the
civil war touched off by the February 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque
Samarra, a Shiite shrine. That conflict has shredded the fragile
connective tissue linking the various elements of Iraqi society; the
deals being cut with insurgent factions serve only to ratify that dismal
outcome. First Sgt. Richard Meiers of the
Army's 3rd Infantry Division got it exactly right: "We're paying
them not to blow us up. It looks good right now, but what happens when
the money stops?"
In short, the surge has done nothing to overturn former secretary
Colin Powell's now-famous "Pottery
Barn" rule: Iraq is irretrievably broken, and we own it. To say
that any amount of "kicking ass" will make Iraq whole once again is
pure fantasy. The U.S. dilemma remains unchanged: continue to pour lives
and money into Iraq with no end in sight, or cut our losses and deal
with the consequences of failure.
In only one respect has the surge achieved undeniable success: It
has ensured that U.S. troops won't be coming home anytime soon. This
was one of the main points of the exercise in the first place. As AEI
military analyst Thomas Donnelly has acknowledged with admirable candor,
"part of the purpose of the surge was to redefine the Washington narrative,"
thereby deflecting calls for a complete withdrawal of U.S. combat forces.
Hawks who had pooh-poohed the risks of invasion now portrayed the risks
of withdrawal as too awful to contemplate. But a prerequisite to perpetuating
the war -- and leaving it to the next president -- was to get Iraq off
the front pages and out of the nightly news. At least in this context,
the surge qualifies as a masterstroke. From his new perch as a
New York Times columnist,
William Kristol has worried that feckless politicians just might
"snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory." Not to worry: The "victory"
gained in recent months all but guarantees that the United States will
remain caught in the jaws of Iraq for the foreseeable future.
Such success comes at a cost. U.S. casualties in Iraq have recently
declined. Yet since Petraeus famously testified before Congress last
September, Iraqi insurgents have still managed to kill more than 100
Americans. Meanwhile, to fund the war, the Pentagon is burning through
somewhere between $2 billion and $3 billion per week. Given that further
changes in U.S. policy are unlikely between now and the time that the
next administration can take office and get its bearings, the lavish
expenditure of American lives and treasure is almost certain to continue
But how exactly do these sacrifices serve the national interest?
What has the loss of nearly 4,000 U.S. troops and the commitment of
about $1 trillion -- with more to come -- actually gained the United
Bush had once counted on the U.S. invasion of Iraq to pay massive
dividends. Iraq was central to his administration's game plan for eliminating
jihadist terrorism. It would demonstrate how U.S. power and beneficence
could transform the Muslim world. Just months after the fall of Baghdad,
the president declared, "The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart
Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution."
Democracy's triumph in Baghdad, he announced, "will send forth the news,
Tehran -- that freedom can be the future of every nation." In short,
the administration saw Baghdad not as a final destination but as a way
station en route to even greater successes.
In reality, the war's effects are precisely the inverse of those
that Bush and his lieutenants expected. Baghdad has become a strategic
cul-de-sac. Only the truly blinkered will imagine at this late date
that Iraq has shown the United States to be the "stronger horse." In
fact, the war has revealed the very real limits of U.S. power.
And for good measure, it has boosted anti-Americanism to record levels,
recruited untold numbers of new jihadists, enhanced the standing of
adversaries such as
Iran and diverted resources and attention from
Afghanistan, a theater of war far more directly relevant to the
threat posed by
al-Qaeda. Instead of draining the jihadist swamp, the Iraq war is
continuously replenishing it.
Look beyond the spin, the wishful thinking, the intellectual bullying
and the myth-making. The real legacy of the surge is that it will enable
Bush to bequeath the Iraq war to his successor -- no doubt cause for
celebration at AEI, although perhaps less so for the families of U.S.
troops. Yet the stubborn insistence that the war must continue also
ensures that Bush's successor will, upon taking office, discover that
the post-9/11 United States is strategically adrift. Washington no longer
has a coherent approach to dealing with Islamic radicalism. Certainly,
the next president will not find in Iraq a useful template to be applied
in Iran or
According to the war's most fervent proponents, Bush's critics have
become so "invested in defeat" that they cannot see the progress being
made on the ground. Yet something similar might be said of those who
remain so passionately invested in a futile war's perpetuation. They
are unable to see that, surge or no surge, the Iraq war remains an egregious
strategic blunder that persistence will only compound.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international
relations at Boston University. His new book, "The Limits of Power,"
will be published later this year.