To say, as the U.S. Institute of Peace apparently does, that we’re no closer to achieving our goals in Iraq seems to me to involve implicitly conceding what ought not to be conceded — namely that we have coherent goals in Iraq. In the Bush/McCain framework, our troops are in Iraq and they’re fighting, so it stands to reason that they must be fighting some coherent force of “bad guys” who they’ve chosen to identify with al-Qaeda, with Iran, or with both. Conversely, those Iraqi forces who are currently aligned with us must be good guys. Objectives, in this view, involve helping the good guys to beat the bad guys, thus securing our interests in beating back Iran and al-Qaeda.
That framework simply lacks sufficient contact with reality to be achievable. So instead we’re doing . . . who knows what? General Petraeus seems to have succeeded in making Iraq less deadly for U.S. forces. But of course avoiding casualties isn’t a viable goal for a war. Our casualty rate is still way higher than it would be if we left Iraq. But in terms of its real goals of preventing GOP members of congress from deserting the administration and thus ensuring that the Iraq problem would get handed over to the next administration, the surge has been a stunning success.