Following conservative losses in the midterm election, President George W. Bush told an anxious public in January 2007 that he had a new plan to win Iraq. A “surge” of more than 20,000 additional troops would be sent in to clamp down on violence and make room for political progress. “If we increase our support at this crucial moment, and help the Iraqis break the current cycle of violence, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home,” he assured the public in a prime-time address from the White House.
With support for the war sagging, conservatives nervous about further electoral losses, and a new progressive Congress threatening to create tough withdrawal legislation, editorial pages across the country labeled the surge strategy “last chance” for Bush—a final “roll of the dice” to get Iraq right. Sadly, one year later, the dice have turned up snake eyes. But as is often the case in Bush’s Washington, the house always wins. Despite failing on almost every metric of success laid out in early 2007, the surge is being labeled triumphant by the administration—and too often, the media.
President Bush made it clear one year ago that the influx of troops was intended to incubate political progress. “A successful strategy for Iraq goes beyond military operations,” he said. “America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced.” These 18 benchmarks included performing constitutional review, holding provincial elections, disarming militias, and implementing oil revenue legislation.
Virtually none of these benchmarks have been achieved during the potentially brief downturn in violence over the past year. Those that have been achieved do not begin to add up to anything resembling a successful government: “Iraq’s government is at a stalemate,” Mowaffak al Rubaie, Iraqi National Security Advisor, told the Washington Post last month.
One benchmark singled out by President Bush in his address to the nation was the need to execute a constitutional review that would form a government more inclusive to different ethnic and religious groups within Iraq. Not only has the constitutional review not been completed, it hasn’t even started. A Constitutional Review Committee was formed pre-surge, in May 2006, and the Committee’s formation still stands as the most progress that has been made, having just been delayed a fourth time and only running a year behind schedule. It has also issued no recommendations.
President Bush also pledged that, “to give every Iraqi citizen a stake in the country’s economy, Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis.” No such legislation has been created, and meanwhile, the Kurdistan Regional Government has entered into several contracts with private oil companies to develop their own oil fields.
Even those few benchmarks that have allegedly been achieved can be of questionable success. The administration has been trumpeting the passage of de-Baathification legislation recently, but it was passed with less than a third of Iraq’s members of parliament, and has received a good deal of criticism from former Ba’athists and some Sunni groups. According to Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek, “The complicated new law on de-Ba’athification has been, in the words of a senior Iraqi official, ‘a big mess, perhaps worse than if we had done nothing.’”
Another yet-to-be-achieved benchmark is disarming the militias. In fact, we’ve done the exact opposite. The United States has funded and armed groups of Iraqis across the country called Concerned Local Citizens, also known as Iraqi Security Volunteers or simply the “Awakening,” to help quell the violence. But as Nir Rosen laid out in his disturbing report in Rolling Stone, these groups are primarily made of Sunni and even Al Qaeda-connected Iraqis, many of whom were insurgents until the government paid them not to be. Needless to say, their loyalty to the American government and its goals—to say nothing of the predominantly Shiite government of Iraq—is tenuous.
“Loyalty that can be purchased is by its very nature fickle,” writes Rosen. “Only months ago, members of the Awakening were planting IEDs and ambushing U.S. soldiers. They were snipers and assassins, singing songs in honor of Fallujah and fighting what they viewed as a war of national liberation against the foreign occupiers…. There is little doubt what will happen when the massive influx of American money stops: Unless the new Iraqi state continues to operate as a vast bribing machine, the insurgent Sunnis who have joined the new militias will likely revert to fighting the ruling Shiites, who still refuse to share power.” As First Sgt. Richard Meiers of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division told the Washington Post recently, “We are paying them [Concerned Local Citizens groups] not to blow us up. It looks good right now, but what happens when the money stops?”
Not surprisingly, the Bush administration has declared the surge a success despite any real evidence of it. Last month, President Bush told an audience that “the surge is working. I know some don’t want to admit that, and I understand.” One would think the surge’s failure to achieve its plainly stated goals would be a simple catch for the mainstream press. Unfortunately, journalists often note the drop in violence that comes from adding 20,000 combat troops in a concentrated area, while forgetting what the lull in violence was supposed to achieve.
Despite all of the contrary evidence, the surge’s alleged success is taken as a given in most of the mainstream media, to the point where some of them sound as if they are doing the administration’s spinning job for it. CNN’s John King, in a recent Democratic presidential debate, implored the candidates thusly: “I want you to look at Iraq now and listen to those who say the security situation is better. Ideal, no, but better.” The Washington Post also demanded acquiescence to the surge’s apparently obvious success, saying, “[t]he refusal of the candidates to acknowledge the indisputable military progress of the past year is troubling.”
CNN framed the surge question unfairly during a debate in November, too, when John Roberts loaded the question again: “It’s also true that U.S. troop deaths have been declining steadily since the spring. And in fact, in the month of October, they were at their lowest level in nearly two years. At the same time, there has been a marked decline in the number of deaths of Iraqi people. Is General David Petraeus correct when he says that the troop increase is bringing security to Iraq?”
When the surge was proposed, New York Times reporter Michael Gordon appeared on the Charlie Rose show and said “I think it’s worth it [sic] one last effort for sure to try to get this right, because my personal view is we’ve never really tried to win. We’ve simply been managing our way to defeat. And I think that if it’s done right, I think that there is the chance to accomplish something.” Lately, Gordon has been penning stories for the Times that feature many “Military officials and experts outside government” who favor high troop levels in Iraq, with few contrary voices noted.
Ironically, one of the toughest debate questions on the surge, by far, came in the Republican debates, and from Fox News. Chris Wallace reminded the candidates that, despite the decrease in violence, Iraqis “continue to struggle to achieve national-level political reconciliation and improved governance.” This was a far fairer assessment of the situation than those posed to Democrats over 20 debates, yet even so, it is probably too optimistic to be supported by the facts on the ground.
Political progress is clearly the crucial way to gauge success in Iraq; military progress lasts only as long as troops stay on the ground. Sadly, the paradoxical view that staying in Iraq is the best way to achieve victory and leave is held not only by the president, but too often by the media. CNN’s Joe Johns bluntly framed the issue by asking the candidates in a recent Democratic debate “are you looking to end this war, or win it?”
Until the press deals honestly with the obvious failure of political progress under the surge and the complex realities that make traditionally defined “victory” nearly impossible, we’re left to keep rolling the dice in a game of only losers.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America will be published in March.
George Zornick is a New York based writer.