At confirmation hearings for Defense Secretary-designate Chuck Hagel, Official Washington will reprise one of its favorite myths, the story of the â€śsuccessful surgeâ€ť in Iraq. Politicians and pundits have made clear that the Senate Armed Services Committee should hector Hagel over his opposition to President George W. Bushâ€™s 2007 â€śsurgeâ€ť of 30,000 troops into that failed war.
These â€śsurgeâ€ť lovers, who insist that Hagel be taken to task for his supposedly bad judgment over the â€śsurge,â€ť include MSNBCâ€™s favorite neocon, Michael Oâ€™Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, and conservative columnist George F. Will, who said Hagel should be asked, â€śIf the surge had not happened, what would have happened in Iraq?â€ť
Most likely, former Sen. Hagel, R-Nebraska, will judge that discretion is the better part of valor and admit his â€śmistakeâ€ť â€“ rather than challenge such a deeply entrenched Washington myth. However, an honest answer to Willâ€™s question would be that the â€śsurgeâ€ť sacrificed nearly 1,000 additional U.S. military dead (and killed countless innocent Iraqis) while contributing very little to the warâ€™s outcome.
Any serious analysis of what happened in Iraq in 2007-08 would trace the decline in Iraqi sectarian violence mostly to strategies that predated the â€śsurgeâ€ť and were implemented by the U.S. commanding generals in 2006, George Casey and John Abizaid, who wanted as small a U.S. â€śfootprintâ€ť as possible to tamp down Iraqi nationalism.
Among their initiatives, Casey and Abizaid ran a highly classified operation to eliminate key al-Qaeda leaders, most notably the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June 2006. Casey and Abizaid also exploited growing Sunni animosities toward al-Qaeda extremists by paying off Sunni militants to join the so-called â€śAwakeningâ€ť in Anbar Province.
And, as the Sunni-Shiite sectarian killings reached horrendous levels in 2006, the U.S. military assisted in the de facto ethnic cleansing of mixed neighborhoods by helping Sunnis and Shiites move into separate enclaves â€“ protected by concrete barriers â€“ thus making the targeting of ethnic enemies more difficult. In other words, the flames of violence were likely to have abated whether Bush ordered the â€śsurgeâ€ť or not.
Radical Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr also helped by issuing a unilateral cease-fire, reportedly at the urging of his patrons in Iran who were interested in cooling down regional tensions and speeding up the U.S. withdrawal. By 2008, another factor in the declining violence was the growing awareness among Iraqis that the U.S. militaryâ€™s occupation indeed was coming to an end. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was demanding a firm timetable for American withdrawal from Bush, who finally capitulated.
Even author Bob Woodward, who had published best-sellers that praised Bushâ€™s early war judgments, concluded that the â€śsurgeâ€ť was only one factor and possibly not even a major one in the declining violence.
In his book, The War Within, Woodward wrote, â€śIn Washington, conventional wisdom translated these events into a simple view: The surge had worked. But the full story was more complicated. At least three other factors were as important as, or even more important than, the surge.â€ť
Woodward, whose book drew heavily from Pentagon insiders, listed the Sunni rejection of al-Qaeda extremists in Anbar Province and the surprise decision of al-Sadr to order a cease-fire as two important factors. A third factor, which Woodward argued may have been the most significant, was the use of new highly classified U.S. intelligence tactics that allowed for rapid targeting and killing of insurgent leaders.
Beyond the dubious impact of the â€śsurgeâ€ť on the gradual reduction in violence, Bushâ€™s escalation failed to achieve its other stated goals, particularly creating political space so the Sunni-Shiite divisions over issues like oil profits could be resolved. Despite the sacrifice of additional American and Iraqi blood, those compromises did not materialize.
And, if youâ€™re wondering what the â€śsurgeâ€ť and its loosened rules of engagement meant for Iraqis, you should watch the WikiLeaksâ€™ â€śCollateral Murderâ€ť video, which depicts a scene during the â€śsurgeâ€ť when U.S. firepower mowed down a group of Iraqi men, including two Reuters journalists, as they walked down a street in Baghdad. The U.S. attack helicopters then killed a father and wounded his two children when the man stopped his van in an effort to take survivors to the hospital.
However, in Washington, the still-influential neocons saw an opportunity in 2008 when the numbers of Iraq War casualties declined. The neocons credited themselves and the â€śsuccessful surgeâ€ť with the improvement as they polished up their tarnished reputations, badly stained by the blood of the long and disastrous conflict.
As the neocons pushed the â€śsuccessful surgeâ€ť myth, they were aided by the mainstream news media, which also had promoted the ill-fated war and was looking for a way to bolster its standing with the public. Typical of this new conventional wisdom, Newsweek published a cover story on the â€śsurgeâ€ť under the title, â€śvictory at last.â€ť To say otherwise brought you harsh criticism for not giving credit to â€śthe troops.â€ť
The Mythâ€™s Consequences
Thus, the myth grew that Bushâ€™s â€śsurgeâ€ť had brought Iraqi violence under control and the United States to the brink of â€śvictory.â€ť Gen. David Petraeus, who took command of Iraq after Bush yanked Casey and Abizaid, was elevated into hero status as a military genius. Also, Defense Secretary Robert Gates received the encomium of â€świse manâ€ť for implementing the â€śsurgeâ€ť after Bush fired Donald Rumsfeld in November 2006 for standing behind his field generals and suggesting a faster U.S. troop drawdown in Iraq.
With the new conventional wisdom firmly established in 2008, media stars pounded Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama for his heresy regarding the â€śsurge.â€ť In major televised interviews, CBS Newsâ€™ Katie Couric and ABC Newsâ€™ George Stephanopoulos demanded that Obama admit he was wrong to oppose the â€śsurgeâ€ť and that his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, was right to support it.
For weeks, Obama held firm, insisting correctly that the issue was more complicated than his interviewers wanted to admit. He argued that there were many factors behind Iraqâ€™s changed security environment. But ultimately he caved in while being interrogated on Sept. 4 by Fox Newsâ€™ Bill Oâ€™Reilly.
â€śI think that the surge has succeeded in ways that nobody anticipated,â€ť Obama confessed to Oâ€™Reilly. â€śItâ€™s succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.â€ť
Much as Hagel is likely to do, Obama judged that continued resistance to this Washington â€śgroup thinkâ€ť was futile. But candidate Obamaâ€™s surrender on the â€śsuccessful surgeâ€ť myth had long-term consequences.
For one, it gave Gen. Petraeus and Defense Secretary Gates inflated reputations inside Official Washington and greater leverage in 2009 to force President Obama into accepting a similar â€śsurgeâ€ť in Afghanistan, what some analysts now regard as Obamaâ€™s biggest national security blunder. [For details, see Robert Parryâ€™s Americaâ€™s Stolen Narrative.]
The Iraq Warâ€™s â€śsurgeâ€ť also did nothing to change the trajectory of an eventual American defeat there. Perhaps the only real accomplishment of the â€śsurgeâ€ť was to let President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney enjoy a decent interval between their departure from government in early 2009 and the unceremonious U.S. departure from Iraq in late 2011.
In the final accounting of the neocon adventure of conquering Iraq, nearly 4,500 American soldiers had died; some 30,000 were wounded; and an estimated $1 trillion was squandered. What was ultimately left behind was not only a devastated Iraqi population but an authoritarian Shiite government (in place of Saddam Husseinâ€™s authoritarian Sunni government) and an Iraq that had become a regional ally of Iran (rather than a bulwark against Iran).
The hard truth is that this bloody folly was not â€śsalvagedâ€ť by the â€śsurgeâ€ť despite what the likes of Michael Oâ€™Hanlon and George F. Will claim. The â€śsurgeâ€ť simply extended the killing for a few more years and bought Bush and Cheney their â€śdecent interval.â€ť
But none of this reality has persuaded Official Washington to rethink its â€śsuccessful surgeâ€ť orthodoxy â€“ and more likely than not, Chuck Hagel will be forced to genuflect before this conventional wisdom to win his Senate confirmation.