Center for American Progress

The “Surge”: The Powerlessness of Positive Thinking

The “Surge”: The Powerlessness of Positive Thinking

Four months after the “surge,” it’s been damned difficult for even the most diligent Americans to try to figure out how the heck it’s going.

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The administration began its escalation of the Iraq war four months ago—that’s two-thirds of a Friedman Unit, for those of you keeping score at home. The future of what everyone agrees is an absolutely crucial effort—however dishonestly conceived and catastrophically undertaken—rests almost entirely on its success. And yet because of the danger and expense of covering it, it’s been damned difficult for even the most diligent Americans to try to figure out how the heck it’s going.

Since President Bush announced his “surge” on Jan.10 and appointed General David Petraeus to the top command post, violence in Iraq has been put on track to make 2007 among the bloodiest years in the war. This was brought home when a bomb went off inside the vaunted American island of the “Green Zone” in Baghdad last week.

A typical Washington Post article written after the bombing, whose headline alone reads “Commander: Baghdad Bombing Shows ‘Long Way to Go’ for Security, Odierno Also Points to ‘Steady Progress’ Against Baghdad’s Rampant Violence,” demonstrates the difficulty reporters have in trying to make sense of what’s going on.

Even so, the news could hardly be termed “encouraging.” We learn that “In the Pentagon news conference, [Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T.] Odierno said the cafeteria attack and a car bombing that brought down a bridge over the Tigris River yesterday ‘dealt another blow’ to the Iraqi people. ‘It is clear that we still have a long way to go to provide security and stability to the people of Iraq,’ he said.”

Charles Krauthammer’s column “The Surge: First Fruits” was published that day in The Washington Post as well. He is pleased to report that everything is on the up-and-up:

“And preliminary results are visible. The landscape is shifting in the two fronts of the current troop surge: Anbar province and Baghdad. … Petraeus is trying now to complete the defeat of the Sunni insurgents in Baghdad—without the barbarism of the Shiite militias, whom his forces are simultaneously pursuing and suppressing.”

Glenn Greenwald caught Krauthammer’s article over at his blog on Salon and responded with disdain. “The warriors [Andrew Sullivan, Krauthammer] who immediately seized on a statistically meaningless lull in violence that lasted all of 11 hours or so in order to run around screaming that the ‘Surge is Working!’ are so far beyond being discredited that a new term ought to be invented to describe it.”

Krauthammer’s colleague at The Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes—the two were both formerly at The New Republicsees a plot afoot, one designed not only to lose the war but also to undermine the presidential hopes of John McCain. “The current narrative,” he writes, “insisted on by Democrats and echoed in the media, encourages opposition to the war and could, if it lingers into 2008, doom McCain’s presidential bid. It goes like this: The war in Iraq is all but lost as Bush pursues the same hopeless strategy he has for four years, the only difference now being his deployment of more troops. McCain’s role in this narrative is that he’s backing Bush, partly for crass political reasons.”

But positing no evidence whatsoever, Barnes—who remains one of Bush’s staunchest supporters in the D.C. press corps, insists, “To say this storyline is outdated, wrongheaded, and defeatist is putting it mildly. But it’s had staying power. In sharp contrast, a more honest narrative—the McCain narrative—goes like this: Thanks to a new strategy of counterinsurgency led by General David Petraeus and more combat troops, we now have a chance to win in Iraq. Success isn’t guaranteed, but the stumbles and setbacks of the past should not distract us from what is being achieved now.”

Barnes’ endorsement of hope over experience is actually kind of modest when compared to that of his “Beltway Boys”—and former New Republic—colleague Morton Kondracke, who explained on their show, “John McCain was a war hero, and he’s my idea of a political hero.” Asked by Barnes, “Is this going to help the McCain campaign?” Kondracke giddily replied, “Boy, I hope so.”

It’s too bad for McCain and his hero-worshippers, to say nothing of our troops put in harm’s way, that an Associated Press news analysis tells an entirely different story. (On the day I came across it, by the way, it appeared on MSNBC’s website beneath a banner of breaking news that read “Four Baghdad car bombings kill at least 66 people.”) The AP article notes “The Bush administration has demanded that Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meet a series of difficult legislative benchmarks to get the country on track. But none of them, especially passage of a law to share oil income throughout the country among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, is anywhere near going onto the books.”

And this unhappy prediction came well before the recent news that radical Shi’a cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr is withdrawing his representatives from the cabinet, undercutting the Iraqi government’s already weakened legitimacy. The New York Times reports:

“Mr. Sadr’s diminished presence in the government could complicate American efforts to draw the cleric and his militia, the Mahdi Army, away from violence by giving them more of a stake in the political process. Despite talk of a fractured Mahdi Army, Mr. Sadr has shown an ability and a willingness to rein in large segments of the militia under the new American security plan, perhaps concerned that resistance could cost him some of his political gains.”

More evidence for the pessimists can be found in the administration’s inability to find anyone to agree to be its “war czar.” At Slate, Fred Kaplan noted that not one of four retired generals has been willing to step up and be the “implementation manager” for this strategy—most notable among them retired general Jack Keane, who co-wrote with Frederick Kagan the original framework for the “surge.”

If Keane doesn’t think his surge will work—he’s expressed frustration with its implementation in the past—why do we? Kaplan also notes that “there’s another official who … has the ‘authority to issue directions to the Pentagon, the State Department, and other agencies.’ He’s called the president of the United States.” He already thinks of himself as a czar, anyways.

Here at the Center for American Progress, Senior Fellow Lawrence Korb, a former Reagan Defense department official, just returned from a fact-finding trip to Iraq. Korb reports that he could only get straight answers from contractors he met when he assured them he wasn’t with the press—which makes one worry about other reporting—and the answers he got weren’t pretty:

“[T]hey were unanimous that the surge was not working. One of them said that members of Muqtada Al-Sadr’s militia have sold their guns and melted back into the population in Sadr City and will buy back their guns at the appropriate time (our own security guard said something similar). …Most people speaking off the record believe that the insurgents will shift to other areas and lay low for a while in Baghdad. …One of the consultants told me not to believe anyone who says that the situation is getting better. The real issue is if the latest surge will work. The most optimistic projection was ‘maybe temporarily.’”

The word “temporarily,” however, is a pretty tricky one. Buried under the news last week was the shock for our soldiers that the administration would be unilaterally extending the tour of every active duty soldier in Iraq for an additional three months.

Bush has naturally tried to hang this—and the personal hardship it’s causing—on the Democrats. In a New York Times piece we read, “The image of soldiers scheduled to come home, but stuck in Iraq as a result of Democratic recalcitrance while money for their replacements was tied up in the legislative fight, was one of the administration’s most powerful themes.” And aside from the neo-cons who’ve drawn their conclusions irrespective of any actual knowledge of what’s taking place, it’s hard to believe that Bush is laying the groundwork for anything than the hopes to somehow lay the failure to win the Iraq war at the feet of his political opponents.

Indeed, most of the combination sneering-and-cheerleading outside of the administration itself has been supplied by the editors of the Standard and immediate family of the plan’s author, Fred Kagan, with considerable overlap between the two. They are the escalation’s primary enablers in the media, convincing administration officials that after four years of failure they have somehow stumbled onto the one strategy that can reverse things. One might as well believe in Peter Pan.

Meanwhile, mainstream media reporters in Iraq continue to risk their lives, dodging suicide bombers, kidnappers, snipers, and IEDs to tell us a story that, read in toto, has no happy ending, indeed, barely even a believable plot: Who would have thought that the world’s most powerful nation could be led by men and women so incompetent, and so cowardly that they would prefer to sacrifice the lives of our soldiers and the safety of our nation to the task of simply admitting their failure?

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His popular blog, “Altercation,” has moved from to Media Matters. The new URL is

Research assistance: Tim Fernholz


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Eric Alterman

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