I share Kevin Drum’s concern that good news out of Iraq is going to lead people to become over-optimistic about the prospects for counterinsurgency in general:
It’s still the case that in the entire history of the world since WWII, big power counterinsurgency has virtually no success stories. Malaysia is the famous exception, but the circumstances there were unusual, it took a very long time anyway, and it’s almost certainly not repeatable. Likewise, although Petraeus’s success in Iraq is unquestionably due partly to his adoption of superior tactics during the surge, that was only one of the Five S’s that allowed his counterinsurgency doctrine to work. Without taking anything away from him, this just isn’t an indication that COIN is any easier to pull off than it ever has been.
To go stronger here, it’s worth observing that absolutely integral to starting to achieve success in Iraq was the rolling strategic decision to abandon our main war aims. In particular, we’re now neither trying to create a strong Iraqi state, nor trying to create an Iraqi state that isn’t dominated by pro-Iranian forces, nor trying to create an Iraqi state that’s a base for American military power, nor especially trying to create a stable Iraqi democracy. I think all of those decisions were the right decisions, based in smart pragmatic thinking about Iraqi realities and American interests. But if we didn’t want to do that stuff, that we could have just not invaded in the first place. Which is exactly what we should have done!
But this is an important point. It seems that Bill Kristol is running around saying “we won the war” in Iraq. In the real world, back in 2004 when liberals were proposing that the United States radically curtail its objectives in Iraq and agree to a firm date for leaving, conservatives called that proposal “losing.” I’m glad they’re now willing to lower their horizons and accept less. But the implausible partisan spin doesn’t change the fact that the war’s been a strategic disaster. Nor does it change the fact that Iraq looks to me more like a lesson in the limits of counterinsurgency than its promise. But it doesn’t seem to me that it’s being read that way. America is a country of optimists and a country that loves the uniformed military and the idea of success, so I think folks are going to look at the very equivocal “success” of 2007-2008 in Iraq and possibly reach some very unsound conclusions about the prospects for succeeding at other ventures.