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The Success of the Surge

By Matthew Yglesias on September 2, 2010 at 9:14 am

"The Success of the Surge"

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Location of Iraq

I know I’m an isolated dead-ender on this subject at this point, but this week’s Iraq speech allowed me to become re-infuriated all over again at the hardened conventional wisdom that “the surge” in Iraq was a big success. To recap what happened, at the beginning of 2007 conditions in Iraq were terrible and we commenced a “surge” of troops. Then things got even worse. Then things started getting better. Then the quantity of troops started going down. Then things continued to improve. Now conditions in Iraq, though still tenuous, are a lot better than the once war. What does this prove?

As best I can tell, it doesn’t prove anything at all. Suppose we’d started withdrawing troops in 2007 and then conditions deteriorated and then after deteriorating for a while they started improving. Is that so implausible? Is the pro-surge version of the counterfactual supposed to be that ethnic violence would otherwise have escalating infinitely and conditions would never have improved? I assume people are generally aware that the tendency of conflicts is for them to wax and wane. We know that Iraq commenced some serious civil conflict in 2004, that it got worse in the presence of American troops throughout 2005 and 2006 and most of 2007, then it improved throughout 2008 and 2009 and that now in 2010 there’s a political stalemate. It’s great that the violence is way down from its high ebb, and I hope Iraqi leaders can resolve their disagreements in a peaceful way.

But whether or not Iraq achieves a durable, non-violent resolution to its political conflicts seems to me to have nothing whatsoever with the presence of American soldiers and it never did. The conventional wisdom narrative has more in common with B.F. Skinner’s work inducing superstition in pigeons than with any kind of real analysis of the costs and benefits of the surge policy.

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