Iraq: Mistakes, judgement, and incompetence
Carlton M. Caves
2008 August 11

The neocons are back. For five years they had only two choices on the Iraqi adventure they foisted on us: parrot the inanities of the Bush gang---remember "a plan for victory" and "stay the course" and "we'll stand down as they stand up"---or sit tight-lipped and grim-faced as things went from bad to worse. Now, as the situation has turned from worse to bad, they are crowing unrestrainedly about the success of the surge and demanding that anyone who doubted its wisdom be sent to the back of the class and required to read the Weekly Standard from cover to cover for a year.

Here's Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to President Bush, shoveling red meat to the Standard's right-wing readers in the July 28 issue: The surge "has transformed the Iraq war from a potentially catastrophic loss to what may turn out to be a historically significant victory. ... Rarely has a political party been so uniformly wrong, in such an obvious way, on such an important matter. And when Americans cast their vote on November 4, they should carefully consider how Barack Obama and the entire Democratic party fought ferociously and relentlessly to undermine a policy that has worked extraordinarily well and may yet prove to be among the most successful military plans in modern times." Perhaps he hasn't heard of Operation Overlord.

You would expect a person with Wehner's self-assessed good judgement to have been vigorously sounding the alarm about the catastrophe that threatened Iraq before the surge. Yet here he is with a rosy assessment, delivered in The Wall Street Journal on 2006 April 4, when he was still deputy assistant to the president and when Iraq was well into the chaos of a sectarian civil war: "In 2005, Iraq's economy continued to recover and grow. Access to clean water and sewage-treatment facilities has increased. The Sunnis are now invested in the political process, which was not previously the case. The Iraqi security forces are far stronger than they were. Our counterinsurgency strategy is more effective than in the past. Cities like Tal Afar, which insurgents once controlled, are now back in the hands of free Iraqis. Al Qaeda's grip has been broken in Mosul and disrupted in Baghdad. We now see fissures between Iraqis and foreign terrorists. And in the aftermath of the mosque bombing in Samarra, we saw the political and religious leadership in Iraq call for an end to violence instead of stoking civil war---and on the whole, the Iraqi security forces performed well." In Mr. Wehner's telling, things were going swimmingly till catastrophe loomed suddenly at the end of 2006, with the surge riding to the rescue since then. In truth, it's best to write off Mr. Wehner as a Bush-gang flack turned polemical partisan and to look elsewhere for judgement of any sort, good, bad, or indifferent.

Let's try the Straight Talk Express. Here's what McCain had to say to Katie Couric of CBS News on July 22: "So the fact is that we have succeeded. We are winning. They'll come home with honor. And it won't be just at a set timetable. It'll be condition-based, which all of us are in agreement. We're including our military leaders. Including one of the great generals in history, General Petraeus, who device his strategy was succeeded when, frankly, most people, and those who thought, including political pundits, said we had lost the war, including Harry Reid, including Senator Obama. So we've succeeded. And we will come home in victory. And it'll be based on conditions. But al Qaeda is not defeated. They're on the run, but they're not defeated. So we have to be prepared to continue to do what's necessary to succeed. But we have in order to win the war. But we have succeeded in the strategy. There's no doubt about it." Wow! This makes Bush sound lucid. And don't think I selected the worst part; the entire interview runs on like this, with McCain parroting the same talking points over and over without any evidence of knowledge or analysis. You have to read the entire interview to appreciate what an utterly mindless jumble it is.

To be fair to McCain, this is not entirely his fault. It's what happens when his handlers persuade him to turn off his chief strength, off-the-cuff riffing, this being thought too prone to gaffes for a presidential campaign, and to replace it with a mindless attention to a few talking points. The result is seen all too clearly in the Couric interview: the Straight Talk Express takes on a suffocating load of manure. McCain really should know better than to abandon his only strength, but his political operatives, whose ilk has debased American political discourse to the point of meaninglessness, ought to be banished.

Let's try a more sensible right-wing source, Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations (and advisor to the McCain campaign). In an article entitled "Behind Maliki's Games" in the July 23 Washington Post, Boot takes as given that "the success of the surge is undeniable," but argues that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki's endorsement of Obama's 16-month timetable for withdrawing US troops is mainly a political ploy and, in any case, is not to be trusted because Maliki "has no military experience" and "has been trapped in the Green Zone, relatively isolated from day-to-day life." Makes you wonder what Boot thinks about Bush, who has no (real) military experience, and has been trapped in the White House bubble, completely isolated from day-to-day life and certainly from dissenting opinion.

All three of our right-wingers claim the surge is an undeniable or unqualified success, but none of them promises or even hints at a way out any time soon. McCain and Boot both worry that the success of the surge is "fragile." McCain runs on about victory with honor, without ever saying what would constitute victory, nor when it might to be achieved. Boot, to his considerable credit, is honest in telling us that he foresees the need for at least a further decade of American presence: "Maliki's public utterances do not provide a reliable guide as to when it will be safe to pull out U.S. troops. Better to listen to the military professionals. The Post recently quoted Brigadier General Bilal al-Dayni, commander of Iraqi troops in Basra, as saying of the Americans, 'We hope they will stay until 2020.' That is similar to the expectation of Iraq's defense minister, Abdul Qadir, who says his forces cannot assume full responsibility for internal security until 2012 and for external security until 2018." Funny how the right was assuring us before the surge that the Iraqi security forces were quickly coming up to speed or already there, and now they're telling us it will take another decade.

But let's not dwell on that, because all along we've needed more of Boot's candor. The only way to make reasonable decisions about Iraq is to have at least some idea of how much time and treasure and how many lives will be required to achieve various goals. If McCain's "victory" requires a further decade of major American commitment, costing more than $100 billion annually, he needs to be honest with us about that. If that's what his victory requires, we must set some goals well short of whatever he calls victory, because our country cannot afford another decade of that kind of commitment to Iraq. We have other, more pressing problems to attend to. Moreover, a continuing American presence in the heart of the Middle East will have a profoundly negative impact as a major recruiting tool for Islamic extremists.

The surge was sold as a short-term, six-month to one-year increase in American troop strength, which would stabilize conditions sufficiently that Iraqi political and security advances would then allow us at least to begin to plan a withdrawal. It's now been eighteen months, troop strength remains well above that before the surge, yet surge advocates can't sketch out an end game short of a further decade of major American commitment. There has been a welcome reduction in violence, it is true, and that we should all applaud. Surge advocates are hoping that crowing about that reduction will prompt us to forget that the surge has not achieved what was promised. This failure to achieve the major objective means that the surge cannot be considered a success.

The reduction in violence now associated with the surge is partly good luck and partly good military strategy. Three developments came together to produce the reduction in violence seen over the last year.

All three of these developments contributed to the reduction in violence. It is very difficult at present to assess their relative importance. Moreover, they're not independent: the surge might have both built on and encouraged the first two developments. Military historians will eventually sort things out and come to a judgement about the relative importance of these three factors. Till then, it takes nothing away from our troops to applaud their efforts while admitting that the first two factors also played major roles. We got lucky in this regard, and it takes nothing away from our commanders in Iraq to recognize that they were smart enough to encourage these fortuitous developments and to take advantage of them. And it takes nothing away from our troops or their commanders to note that the present confluence of these three developments provides no guarantee that the current reduction in violence will continue.

Should we also be handing out kudos to the Bush gang? Given their general incompetence, I think the best that can be said for them is that even a blind sow stumbles on the occasional acorn. To have arrested the slide into catastrophe is something, of course, but the Bush gang still has the slide itself to answer for. And, oh, what a catalogue the slide is.

These sins are unforgivable. Stumbling on an acorn is not enough to excuse them. Moreover, the Republican party has been nearly uniform in supporting the Bush gang's Iraq mistakes, making it perhaps not so uncommon to have nearly an entire party so uniformly wrong, in such an obvious way, on such important matters.

And come to think of it, what about human-caused global warming, the greatest crisis humankind has ever faced? The Bush gang and nearly the entire Republican party have denied the problem and opposed any meaningful action---indeed, opposed any action at all. Maybe Mr. Wehner meant to say that it is rare for Democrats to be so uniformly wrong on an important matter, because the Republicans have spent eight years demonstrating repeatedly how to do it.

   Index to CMC commentaries