Un-Selling the Surge

Despite growing disenchantment with the war in Iraq, the well-organized conservative propaganda machine has been hard at work selling the "success of the surge." After relentlessly promoting the invasion of Iraq in the wake of 9-11, then denying or shifting blame for that invasion's negative repercussions, the neocons have now begun attacking anyone who challenges their "surge success" narrative for being defeatist and dishonoring the troops. Having moved the goalposts all the way up onto the line of scrimmage, the right now condemns anyone who will not recognize a touchdown.

At The Weekly Standard, home base of the surgeniks, James Ceaser asks: "Will any of the Democratic candidates be able to summon the courage to concede an American victory in Iraq? No one, of course, can know the ultimate outcome of this long war. But the vaunted 'facts on the ground' now at least admit a trend leading to what might reasonably be called victory." Stirring.

Kimberly Kagan, whose husband Fred Kagan helped devise the surge strategy, demonstrates the right's peculiar new metric. "Clearly," Kagan writes in the Standard, "this skillful military operation has created new realities on the ground. With violence falling sharply, Iraqis are no longer mobilizing for full-scale civil war, as they were at the end of 2006." Is this the soft bigotry of low expectations?

In what must be one of the more egregious instances of projection in recent memory, an editorial in the National Review accuses Democrats of living in a "fantasyland" for ignoring the surge's success, shamefully insisting that to disagree with conservative spin is to "deny the sacrifice and achievement" of our troops.

It doesn't wash.

Yes, there has been a drop in violence. This is primarily the result of two things: The completion of large-scale sectarian cleansing in formerly mixed areas, and a revolt among Sunni tribes against al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a revolt whose origins clearly predated the surge. Gen. David Petraeus deserves credit for adapting his counterinsurgency plan to this development, but it is not clear that the surge in troops contributed in any significant way to the developments now being presented as success. Moreover, in supporting the Sunni tribes' fight against AQI, the U.S. has simply helped to contain a problem of its own creation, as al-Qaeda was not present in Iraq in any significant way before the 2003 invasion.

Furthermore, by creating a new jihad front, the war in Iraq has given another generation of fundamentalist mujahideen its own Afghanistan. In the words of one Iraqi Arab observer, "The Arabs went to Afghanistan and got a master’s in violent Jihad, but in Iraq they're all getting Ph.Ds." We have given them the opportunity to develop tactical and technological expertise against the most formidable military in existence, expertise that they have transmitted around the world. This is something that will not be reversed, even if AQI is completely eradicated.

The stated goal of the surge was Iraqi national reconciliation. There is no evidence that we have moved any closer to this goal -- in fact there is evidence for the opposite. Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress states that "the current policy of supporting 'bottom up' security initiatives means that the U.S. military is actually cooperating with sectarian cleansers and in some cases serial murderers." A recent New Yorker article focused on the western Baghdad suburb of Ghazaliya. This neighborhood serves as one of Petraeus' showpieces for the success of his strategy, yet many of the former insurgents newly recruited into the U.S.-backed security service are interested in little more than using their new authority to exact revenge on Shiites -- now with the U.S.' imprimatur.

The two major Shia militias, the Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council's Badr Brigade and Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, are locked in a struggle for control of oil-rich southern Iraq. Despite a cease-fire agreement between Sadr and Abd al Aziz al-Hakim, the two factions have given no sign of reconciliation, their loyalists continue to engage in fierce turf warfare, and many believe that the two groups are preparing for a new round of more intense battle.

Grand Ayatollah Sistani's influence has waned significantly, as evidenced by the lack of acclaim for his blessing of Sunni leader Tarek al Hashemi's proposed national compact, which two years ago would have been considered hugely significant. One of the great tragedies of the botched post-war is that Sistani's recognition of the principle of popular sovereignty, which could have had revolutionary implications, was overshadowed by the unremitting violence. There is simply no overstating the significance of one of the most revered Grand Ayatollah acknowledging that legitimate political authority has a source other than the Qur'an, and there is no overstating how tragic it was that this potential reformation was cut short, drowned in the deluge of sectarian violence, as if Martin Luther had been mugged on his way to the Wittenberg church.

Despite constant charges of Iranian funding, Iraqi insurgent groups have become largely self-funded through a series of scams, extortion, smuggling, and other organized criminal activity. American officers have recognized that Iran has also seriously clamped down on smuggling through its borders, resulting in fewer IEDs, something that surgeniks again have tried to credit the surge for. But, of course, the administration's focus on Iran was always a way to draw attention from its own failures. The central problem in Iraq has been, and continues to be, the atomization of Iraqi society after decades of brutal Ba'athist rule and the anarchy following the U.S. invasion. Despite some security gains, this problem persists. Marc Lynch of George Washington University writes, "Without institutionalized control over the means of violence and a meaningful political bargain at the center, I just do not see any way to prevent a spiral into sectarian warfare. ... The current strategy is accelerating Iraq's descent into a warlord state even if violence is temporarily down."

But Iraq is no longer just about Iraq. Bush's entire Middle East policy since the invasion of Iraq has been a series of measures designed to deal with the various unforeseen and unprepared for disasters resulting from the invasion of Iraq. Even after Bush has left office, U.S. policy in the Middle East will be, for the foreseeable future, based on containing the regional fallout from the invasion.

Pointing this out is not meant to dishonor the sweat and sacrifices of American troops (or the sacrifice of the families who desperately want them home), only to make the broader point that Bush and his water-carriers in the right-wing media are clutching at anything that can conceivably help them keep the high ground in a losing ideological battle, even standing upon the already-overburdened shoulders of our troops.

By next week, there will be 175,000 American troops in Iraq -- the most since the invasion. Ironically, this comes at a time when American public disapproval of the war is at its highest. A full 68 percent of the American public disapproves of the Iraq War, so it's understandable why we're seeing this big propaganda push. To a great extent, the president and his enablers have treated the war in Iraq first and foremost as a message problem, something to be defended with clever arguments, not to be won with better policies. For them, the central front in the war on terror has always been the American media, and the near enemy has always been domestic political opposition. Neoconservatives have constructed a deeply divisive and disingenuous political narrative in which the return to merely unacceptable levels of violence in Iraq is evidence of victory, and disagreement is evidence of "not supporting the troops."

But don't be fooled: This isn't victory. It's not even close.