It is hard for Americans to keep talking about Iraq. Who was right and wrong about the war before it started, whether it could have been handled better once under way—these are arguments from a long time ago, and ultimately pointless. Presidential candidates must offer plans about what comes next, but the reality is that no one knows. Meanwhile, the ethnic politics and shifting alignments and steps forward and back in Iraqi governmental structure make it hard for anyone except the experts to follow the action. The experts—and the minority of American families directly touched by service and sacrifice in the drawn-out war.
What Americans can talk about is “the surge.” This is a concept connected to an impressive man, Army General David Petraeus, who is also controversial enough to be interesting. The surge is connected to an important intellectual trend: the revival of counterinsurgency, or COIN, strategy for the U.S. military, with its emphasis on patient, person-to-person skills rather than on super-precise weaponry. And it has offered supporters of the war something that seemed lost since 2003: the chance for a new start, with things done right this time.
But a year after the surge began, more U.S. troops were in Iraq than when it started, and the argument for keeping them there had descended into circular reasoning. Either the new strategy was working so well that it shouldn’t be interrupted, or else things were still so precarious that the U.S. couldn’t afford to withdraw now. We were back to the impossibility of talking about Iraq.