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Dan Froomkin

Dan Froomkin

Posted: September 18, 2008 04:09 PM

Has the 'Surge' Brought Us Any Closer to 'Victory'?


Peter Galbraith's new book, Unintended Consequences: How War in Iraq Strengthened America's Enemies has a chapter on the "surge", in which he calls it the "Potemkin Surge."

This may sound surprising -- if not heretical -- to many people in Washington, Republicans and Democrats alike, who have bought into the gospel that the surge has worked.

But if the surge has worked, that must mean victory is just around the corner, right? That's certainly the impression that the Bush White House is trying to give -- without exactly coming out and saying so.

The surge has undisputedly been accompanied by a dramatic and welcome reduction in violence. But Galbraith argues that it wasn't the surge as much as other factors that led to the reduction in violence; that the main factor was the Sunni Awakening; and that the U.S.'s de facto creation of a Sunni army -- led in some cases by the same Baathists the U.S. invaded Iraq to overthrow -- has in fact contributed to Iraq's breakup and set the stage for an intensified civil war between Sunnis and Shiites once the U.S gets out of the way. Whenever that is.

"It's not a stability that can last," Galbraith said in an interview last week. "People are coming to the conclusion that we're winning merely because we've reduced the violence, as if that were an end unto itself."

Reporters should be pushing back more aggressively when administration officials talk about how, thanks to the surge, we're now winning in Iraq, he says.

"What do they mean by victory?" Galbraith asks. President Bush and Republican presidential nominee John McCain generally describe victory as leaving behind a peaceful, secular, democratic country that is an American ally. But where are the signs that Iraq is headed in that direction?

Rather than a country on its way to normalcy, Galbraith sees a country where rival factions are consolidating their power and readying for an epic battle once the coast is clear. Another reason often cited for the reduction in violence is that Moqtada al Sadr has ordered his Mahdi Army to observe a cease-fire. But rather than a sign of political reconciliation, Galbraith says, this is a sign of strategic thinking. Why fight the Americans when his real enemies are the Sunnis? Sadr "has every strategic reason to keep his powder dry," Galbraith says.

Why is the Shiite-led government suddenly so eager for us to leave? It's not because the violence is down. It's because we got the violence down by turning people who were shooting at us into a Sunni army. "The Shiite government sees the Sunni military as a threat--which it is," Galbraith says. "It isn't that 'things are going so well we can manage on our own,' - it's that 'you are no longer serving our purposes'."

Galbraith thinks journalists are under-reporting certain key aspects of the current Iraqi political situation. Among them:

* The character of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, which Galbraith says is profoundly anti-Sunni and not likely to make accommodations, regardless of the occasional PR blitz to the contrary. Reporters should also talk to Sunnis and Kurds in the government and ask them how much influence they feel they have. Reporters in Washington should be asking their sources: Do you really see Maliki as someone who is committed to secular democracy?

* The character of the Sunni Awakening. A hundred thousand Sunni fighters - used to getting paid $300 a month by the United States - are in fact not going to be easily accommodated by the Shiite government. And who knows what they'll do when the U.S. stops paying them?

Galbraith praises the quality of reporting from Iraq, "especially given the difficulties of operating in Iraq." But in Washington, he said, journalists "too often take what people say at face value."

If people continue to think the surge is a success, the result could well be Bush leaving office with a widespread public perception that we're winning in Iraq.

But then what happens? What happens is that when things start to get ugly again, when there's a civil war, or a partitioning, or an anti-American strongman comes to power - i.e. when we inevitably start to "lose" - Bush could avoid the blame.

"We need to settle the issue of 'Who lost Iraq' now," Galbraith says. "Because the last thing we need in our politics is another corrosive debate like 'Who lost Vietnam' and 'Who lost China'," Galbraith says.

Well, then, who exactly did lose Iraq?

"George W. Bush."

This post originally appeared on NiemanWatchdog.org.

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