Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Surge

These days there appears to finally be consensus on the Iraq War. The mainstream media, politicians, and "sensible" voters all agree that the Iraq surge, much derided in the past as a Bush administration ploy to convince the public that with a little elbow grease and perseverance the horrible situation that we created in Iraq could be fixed, is working. Unfortunately, like most instances of American political consensus, the widespread belief that the surge achieved success is false and the American public is most probably in for a major disappointment - which is painless in comparison with what continued failure means for Iraq.
The surge has been successful politically in the U.S. due to it being so intuitive. The natural instinct in problem solving is to throw resources at the problem until it goes away, or in the case of Iraq, send more troops. Unfortunately, the war in Iraq is not a simple problem with a simple solution. The messy political situation, where different ethnic, tribal, religious, and class contingencies compete for power and security, is not the open war on the battlefield where superior troop numbers have an advantage, nor is it similar to the beginning of the occupation of Iraq, when American troops toppled one government only to be left short-staffed to deal with providing a new one.
Fortunately for all those supporting the surge, the factions - especially Sunni - within Iraq who were doing the majority of the fighting, began to contemplate a new strategy towards winning security in a destabilized country. Beginning before the surge but finally coming to fruition as American troop levels in Baghdad and other restive areas grew, Iraqi insurgents switched their allegiance against Al-Qaeda, and in reward were given money and weapons by the U.S.
But it wasn't only switching allegiances that have made Iraq less violent since the surge. The decline of multi-ethnic neighborhoods, due to ethnic cleansing, evidenced by millions of refuge and internally displaced Iraqis, is another sad hint at why the killing has abated for now.
But this lull in fighting is probably temporary. The current arrangement where the conflicting interests are bribed into passivity is built on an increasingly shaky political foundation. The Sunni tribes cooperating with the U.S. will only cooperate for as long as they are paid. They also expect to have political power in the Iraqi government, and security guarantees, something that the Shiite leadership clearly is hesitant to afford them. Only recently it was reported in The New York Times (here) that the Iraqi government is preparing a major offensive against Sunni groups, including the Sons of Iraq, the very group that Gen. Patreaus credited with helping to bring down violence in Iraq and which is supported monetarily by the U.S. These are signs that the days of cooperation might be coming to a close.
The truth that is not expressed in pithy statements like "the surge worked" is that the political powers in Iraq have yet to shift into place. The current period of calm has been a godsend, especially for Republicans and McCain, but tension is mounting. McCain's unwillingness to point out the flaws in his myth of the surge's success is dangerous to him politically, especially if the situation spoils before November. Obama also is far too reluctant to tell the truth about the surge - which it appears he knows due to his continued, though often timid, opposition to it. He is not helped by the simplistic "the surge has worked/is working" line constantly repeated in the media. Even newsmagazines that think highly of their product, like The Economist, repeat the false assessment - most recently when they derided Obama for "denying funds to the 'surge' that has worked so well" - though The Economist has failed time and again in their analysis of events.
The point of this piece is to clarify the actual situation in Iraq. It is never helpful to have delusions about real, ongoing issues, especially in an election such as this where Americans must asses the good judgment of candidates, with one supporting the fictionalized surge, and the other choosing not to pander by proclaiming false victory.

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