What Did The Surge Accomplish?

As everyone knows, critics of the Iraq War in general and of the 2007 “surge” are completely discredited by the fact that conditions in Iraq were bad, then the surge happened, then conditions got worse, then conditions later got better. Obviously, had the surge not happened then at no future point would conditions in Iraq have ever improved. Or something.

Nevertheless, despite being discredited I got into an interesting Twitter exchange with Andrew Exum on the subject yesterday. He said, “I give the Bush Administration high marks for both a) their handling of Iraq from 2007 to 2009, which includes both Surge and SOFA.” I responded by asking Exum how my life, or the lives of other Americans, had been made better by the surge. He said “the drop in ethno-sectarian violence arguably allowed the U.S. and Iraqis to negotiate the SOFA.” Then I asked how the SOFA had made my life, or the lives of other Americans better. Exum initially responded to that with incredulity, but eventually explained that “[t]he SOFA established the terms of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, bringing an end to what had been a costly occupation” and “[s]o just from the perspective of U.S. tax-payer expenditures, the SOFA was good for you, me and the rest of the public.”


I take this all to be a reminder that “success” or “failure” of policy is interest-relative and that if you’re a normal person, the surge didn’t succeed in achieving anything at all. The best Exum could do in response to a skeptic is to say that the surge laid the groundwork for leaving years later thus saving me money relative to an endless occupation baseline. But we could, of course, have saved even more money by leaving sooner. Now needless to say there are lots of other interests in play other than the interests of the average American. Opting to surge rather than withdraw did lead to the death or maiming of many American soldiers. And opting to surge rather than withdraw cost the taxpayers a lot of money. But it also allowed important factions within the American national security apparatus to claim that withdrawal from Iraq was happening on terms of victory (we’re leaving because the country is stabilized because we’re awesome) rather than on terms of defeat (we’re leaving because the occupation is unworkable). That narrative victory is worth a lot to a lot of people, and it makes them very glad that Bush opted for the surge. But if you’re not invested in obtaining that narrative victory, it’s still the case that surge proponents can’t point to any particular respect in which Bush’s decision has improved people’s lives.