The Surge Numbers Speak But Who is Listening?

Believe it or not, some pundits and politicians are still bullish on the surge. One wonders whether they’ve seen its recent failing grades.

Part of a Series

As Congress heads toward a funding showdown over the fate of Bush’s troop escalation in Iraq, there are some pundits and politicians out there who remain, believe it or not, bullish on the future of America’s involvement in Iraq.

During last night’s Republican debate, TalkingPointsMemo points out that John McCain was even trying to out-hawk Mitt Romney.  Romney stated that “the surge was ‘apparently working,’ to which McCain replied, ‘The surge is working, sir. No, not “apparently.” It’s working.’” And Rep. Chris Shays (R-CT) said this week that the surge is “a huge success! It astonishes me why people aren’t willing to at least acknowledge the successes and then talk about what we do.”

One wonders if these men have seen the recent independent audit from the Government Accountability Office, which failed the Bush administration on 11 out of 18 benchmarks and points out that daily attacks against Iraqis haven’t decreased because of the surge.

The GAO report has been criticized by some surge supporters, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who tried to undercut the GAO’s credibility despite citing their other research in official letters. It also led White House spokesperson Dana Perino to complain that the GAO’s work was “unrealistically harsh because it assigned pass-or-fail grades to each benchmark.” Hey, Dana, there’s a war on out there. This is pass or fail.

Surge co-architect Fred Kagan penned a critique of the GAO report in the pages of The Weekly Standard. He criticized the report as a “fool’s errand” concocted by a hostile Congress, adding: “The assertion that there is no ‘clear and reliable evidence that the level of sectarian violence was reduced’ will surprise those who have been listening to American and Iraqi officers alike brief that the levels have been falling for months—as well as those who have walked the streets of formerly war-torn neighborhoods in Baghdad.” One has to wonder which soldiers he’s listening to, and if his walk in the “formerly” war-torn neighborhoods of Baghdad was anything like John McCain’s infamous trip to market—surrounded by a heavily armed military escort.

Kagan wonders why the GAO doesn’t take the army’s figures at face value. Well, one reason might be because the government isn’t counting Iraqis killed in car bombs as victims of sectarian violence. Ilan Goldberg compares this oversight to “count[ing] murder rates in the U.S. but exclude[ing] all gun violence.”

Why are so many still supporting the failed effort in Iraq? Unsurprisingly, the mainstream media continues to treat Gen. David Petraeus as if he’s Diogenes. The Washington Monthly’s Kevin Drum notes:

“[Petraeus] is keenly aware of the value of both the media and public opinion, and he did what any counterinsurgency expert would have counseled in his circumstances: he unleashed a hearts-and-minds campaign aimed at opinion makers and politicians. For months the military transports to Baghdad have been stuffed with analysts and Congress members, and every one of them has gotten a full court press of carefully planned and scripted presentations, tightly controlled visits to favored units, and assorted dollops of “classified” information designed to flatter his guests and substantiate his rosy assessments without the inconvenience of having to defend them in public. … Even though there’s been no discernible political progress, minimal reconstruction progress, and apparently no genuine decrease in violence, he’s managed to convince an awful lot of people that the first doesn’t matter, the second is far more widespread than it really is, and the third is the opposite of reality.”

Greg Sargent of The Horse’s Mouth also breaks down the mainstream media’s failure to be more skeptical about the surge in Iraq, pointing out journalistic breakdowns ranging from “big news orgs repeatedly twisted the words of Democrats who had returned from Iraq to make their assessments sound more positive than they were,” “big news orgs shifted the definition of the success of the surge from a political goal to a military one,” and “many news organizations gave tons of coverage to outside experts who said the surge is working, while giving little to none to people who said it wasn’t.”

“If you step back and survey the totality of media’s performance this summer on the Iraq debate, it becomes a good deal clearer just how awful it’s all been—and just how complicit these failings were in helping to shift the debate,” Sargent writes.

And don’t forget, as the invaluable New York Times columnist Paul Krugman pointed out many months ago, on Sept. 26, 2004, the general wrote a Washington Post op-ed that towed the Bush line completely at the expense of, well, reality.

Six weeks before the last presidential election, Petraeus wrote, “Iraqi leaders are stepping forward, leading their country and their security forces courageously.” And those security forces were doing just fine: their leaders “are displaying courage and resilience” and “momentum has gathered in recent months.” Turns out, more than three years later, none of these things have come to pass.

In fact, according to this morning’s Washington Post, the Iraqis “will be unable to take over internal security from U.S. forces in the next 12 to 18 months” and “cannot yet meaningfully contribute to denying terrorists safe haven.” Reporter Karen DeYoung adds, “The report, prepared by a commission of retired senior U.S. military officers, describes the 25,000-member Iraqi national police force and the Interior Ministry, which controls it, as riddled with sectarianism and corruption. The ministry, it says, is ‘dysfunctional’ and is ‘a ministry in name only.’ The commission recommended that the national police force be disbanded.”

Smart Bush-boosters like The New York Times’ David Brooks are prepared should the plan fail. This week he wrote, “the surge is failing, at least politically, because there are practically no nonsectarian institutions, and there are few nonsectarian leaders to create them. Security gains have not led to political gains.” Brooks doesn’t quite conclude that this is a reason we should take our troops out of Iraq, but at least he raises the question—long unraised in conservative circles—“Is it worth more American lives to help [Iraqis control their own neighborhoods]? And, if so, how?”

And so we begin again…

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, CUNY. His weblog, “Altercation,” appears at, His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.

Research Assistance: Tim Fernholz

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

Explore The Series