THE BLOG
10/16/2014 12:36 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2014

Excuse Me, But We Never 'Won' in Iraq

It's often been said that generals always fight the last war, especially if they think they won it. That old adage remains as true today as it was when the Maginot Line was built in the 1930s to prevent a second German invasion of France. And it is as true for politicians as it is for generals.

The proof can be found in the current debate about the so-called Islamic State, a terrorist organization so vile that even al-Qaida disowned it. While it may not be popular with fellow thugs, the Islamic State has managed to take over much of Iraq and Syria. Predictably, Washington seems more interested in assigning blame for the situation than dealing with it.

Sen. John McCain, for instance, said this about the war in Iraq: "We had it won. Gen. [David] Petraeus had the conflict won, thanks to the surge. If we had left a residual force behind, we would not be facing the crisis we are today. Those are fundamental facts. We had a stable government. But the president wanted out, and now we are paying a very heavy price."

None of these "facts" is true. The Bush administration laid the groundwork for today's mess when it negotiated a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government that stipulated American combat troops would be gone by the end of 2011. The Obama administration tried to negotiate a continuation of their presence, but the Iraqi government refused unless U.S. troops were subject to the Iraqi judicial system, a condition to which no president would agree. No Iraqi politician was going to agree without that provision. So, goodbye U.S. troops.

The surge also did not "win" the war. It won only a temporary lull in a civil war that started when American officials disbanded the Iraqi army and kicked members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party out of their government jobs. That left all the people who used to run the country (ruthlessly) with no stake in its future. They were not simply going to go home and quietly watch their children go hungry.

Instead they ignited an insurgency that grew into civil war, which the surge was supposed to extinguish. If there is any historical fact that Mr. McCain should have absorbed it is this: Vietnam demonstrated that American troops cannot win a civil war for a regime that is incapable of defending itself. Iraqi security forces outnumber those of the Islamic State by 20 to one but show no willingness to fight.

The service and sacrifice of our troops in Iraq was incredible, especially since the only thing most of us on the home front ever did to support the war was to take George W. Bush's advice to "go shopping." That sacrifice notwithstanding, a surge of 30,000 troops in a country of 28 million people, especially when 25,000 never left Baghdad, was not going to win the war or even do much to reduce the carnage.

Two other things brought about the lull in fighting. First, many of the foreign jihadis who joined the fray alienated the Iraqis. Second, and most important, many of those who used to have those jobs in the military and government were put back on the payroll. Once they began drawing paychecks again, they started defending the existing political order instead of trying to destroy it.

The relative calm lasted as long as the insurgents were kept employed. When the Americans stopped paying them, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continued to do so, but only for a time. He was more interested in converting the Iraqi armed forces and police into a Shiite militia loyal to him than he was in keeping happy Sunni supporters of the former regime. When they lost their paychecks, they resumed the civil war and many became members of what we now know as the Islamic State.

The man Mr. McCain claims won the war is the same David Petraeus who wrote in the Washington Post that "Iraq's security forces are developing steadily and they are in the fight. Momentum has gathered in recent months. With strong Iraqi leaders out front and with continued coalition support, this trend will continue." That gushingly optimistic article was published in September 2004. Six weeks later, Mr. Bush was reelected and a little over two years after that Mr. Petraeus pinned on his fourth star. Mission accomplished.

The Iraqi leaders Mr. Petraeus praised are as responsible for restarting the civil war in 2014 as American officials are for creating it in 2004. But don't expect the architects of the Iraqi disaster to admit that. They prefer to echo the McCain version of history.

In a lengthy article for Foreign Policy titled "How We Won in Iraq," Mr. Petraeus credits the "victory" to the surge of American troops. He mentions only in passing that putting 100,000 insurgents on the payroll might have had something to do with it. He spends most of the article praising those who worked with him and by extension himself. He throws in three sentences at the end describing how to regain "victory" -- all that is required is a "surge of ideas."

Mr. Petraeus mentions Mr. al-Maliki seven times, but never critically. He praises him for being "willing to undertake the vast majority of the necessary changes" when it is clear that the former prime minister's corruption, incompetence and relentless sectarian exclusionism has made Iraq what it is today.

Mr. Petraeus will be speaking in Pittsburgh Oct. 28. For $25 to $65, you can hear about how he won the war.

This article originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Dennis Jett is a professor at the School of International Affairs at Penn State University and the author of the forthcoming book "American Ambassadors - The Past, Present and Future of America's Diplomats"