Giving Away Too Much

A few words about Peter Beinart’s latest argument for liberals adopting conservative national security talking points. Perhaps out of a charitable desire to grant the outgoing president a single victory, or in a cynical ploy to reestablish some of that good old liberal hawk “seriousness,” Peter Beinart exhorts Democrats to admit that “President Bush was right about the surge.”

Is the surge solely responsible for the turnaround? Of course not. Al-Qaeda alienated the Sunni tribes; Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army decided to stand down; the United States assassinated key insurgent and militia leaders, all of which mattered as much if not more than the increase in U.S. troops. And the decline in violence isn’t necessarily permanent. Iraq watchers warn that communal distrust remains high; if someone strikes a match, civil war could again rage out of control.

Moreover, even if the calm endures, that still doesn’t justify the Bush administration’s initial decision to go to war, which remains one of the great blunders in American foreign policy history. But if Iraq overall represents a massive stain on Bush’s record, his decision to increase America’s troop presence in late 2006 now looks like his finest hour. Given the mood in Washington and the country as a whole, it would have been far easier to do the opposite. Politically, Bush took the path of most resistance. He endured an avalanche of scorn, and now he has been vindicated. He was not only right; he was courageous.

I think it’s clear, and been pretty widely recognized, that the addition of 30,000 troops and the implementation of a new counterinsurgency strategy — part of which involved paying former insurgents to point their guns elsewhere — did help to reduce violence in Iraq. Just how much is something that analysts and historians will continue to debate. But I’m not at all convinced that Bush’s choice of this strategy was an act of courage, and not only because it would have been the first such act of his presidency.


A unilateral U.S. military escalation was not the only option on the table in late 2006. The Iraq Study Group had produced a number of recommendations for dealing with Iraq’s civil war. We can never know what the result of the ISG recommendations would have been. We do know, however, that the credible threat of U.S. withdrawal triggered Sunni tribal leaders’ strategic decision to turn against Al Qaeda. We also know that the first months of 2007 — after the surge had begun — were some of the most violent of the war, as the sectarian cleansing of Baghdad went into overdrive, utterly changing the demographic character of one of the region’s most storied capitals. The completion of this process, the separation of large portions of the city’s population into secure sectarian enclaves, contributed significantly to the decline in violence.

We also know that the surge failed to bring about the political progress that was its goal, and, as Marc Lynch, Brian Katulis and Peter Juul explored in Iraq’s Political Transition After the Surge, has actually frozen into place many of Iraq’s political divisions, making the goal of accommodation more difficult to reach.

The surge was therefore not the only conceivable way to “save” Iraq. It was, however, the only conceivable way to save America’s War in Iraq. Recognizing the views of his bipartisan critics and accepting the ISG recommendations would have been, for Bush, the same as accepting defeat. Faced with a number of options, Bush gambled on the one that could most plausibly result in his being able to claim “victory.” But even if one does accept this claim, hitting blackjack does not mean that it was smart — let alone courageous — to bet the kids’ college fund in the first place, especially after you just lost the house and car at poker.

What’s particularly odd about Beinart’s argument is that he even recognizes that his claim about the surge is different that the one being made by the surge’s conservative celebrants. It’s fine for Beinart to insist that the surge “doesn’t justify the Bush administration’s initial decision to go to war,” but this is precisely what conservatives mean when they say the surge worked. The veneration of the surge is nested within a broader belief system which ignores or denies the war’s negative effects — massive displacement, Iranian entrenchment in Iraq, the promotion and spread of radical Salafist ideology and tactics — in favor of an emotionally satisfying resurrection story, one which also contains a neat explanatory mechanism for blaming Democrats for any and all future problems in Iraq. You can almost write the Charles Krauthammer column yourself in which — after fighting erupts in Kirkuk, or over any of the other issues that the surge failed to resolve — he laments how President Obama squandered Bush’s hard-won gains.

It’s unclear to me why Beinart should want to help write that column. But, reheated liberal hawkery aside, the divide between the majority of Americans who consider the Iraq war a tragic mistake, and the small minority who continue to insist — even knowing what we know — that it was a wise policy choice, is real and enduring. It will shape and inform our foreign policy debates — especially in regard to military intervention — for the foreseeable future, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. Nor should progressives indulge the war party’s myth-making simply in an attempt to appear reasonable.


Also see Marc Lynch’s take on Beinart’s piece, in which Lynch suggests that Bush’s real act of courage was signing the SOFA:

When the Iraqis insisted on an Obama-style timeline for U.S. withdrawal instead of a Bush/McCain- style conditions-based aspirational time frame for U.S. withdrawal, he could have insisted on the latter. This would have fit with his administration’s often-repeated preferences. He could have continued to push for this conception closer to the December 31 deadline, playing high-stakes chicken at the expense of American military planning for the coming year and at the risk of the Iraqi political system not having adequate time to ratify the deal.

But he didn’t. To his credit, Bush agreed to the Obama-style timeline for U.S. withdrawal. Granted, he hedged — he didn’t authorize Ambassador Ryan Crocker to sign off on the deal until after the Presidential election (on November 18). But at that point he bowed to the political realities in the U.S. and Iraq and agreed to a SOFA which far more closely matched Obama’s avowed vision for Iraq — withdrawal of U.S. forces in three years, no permanent bases — than his own.

I think this is a good point, but also that it says an enormous amount about what we’ve come to know and expect of George W. Bush that a pragmatic decision not to play chicken with America’s national security should be deserving of praise.