The Consequences of the Surge

Here's Ezra Klein, responding to this David Brooks column praising the President for the decision to implement (and stick with) the surge:

... the argument over the surge was never an argument positing that more troops couldn't lead to less violence. Folks forget this, but the surge was actually part of Howard Dean's 2004 candidacy, when he was running as an anti-war candidate. In June 2003, on Meet the Press, he said, "I can tell you one thing, though. We need more troops in Afghanistan. We need more troops in Iraq now." I disagreed with him, but that was the plan: More troops, leading to less violence, leading to withdrawal. It was a plan that Democrats, even liberal Democrats, supported. Would Brooks like to credit Dean as a military visionary?

This is a good point, but one that cuts both ways. Yes, Brooks' argument does imply that Howard Dean and John Kerry deserve credit for championing a surge-style increase of forces back in 2004. But what does it say about Dean and Kerry, and the Democrats in general, that they championed increasing America's footprint in Iraq only so long as doing so gave them a "we're tough too!" club with which to beat up Bush - and only so long as there seemed to be no chance that Bush would actually call their bluff?

Of course it's possible to mount an argument, as many liberals did in 2006, that the seeming inconsistency stems entirely from dispassionate analysis: The surge was a good idea back when Democrats favored it, you see, but the changing facts on the ground made it a bad idea in '06. In other words, the surge just happened to become the wrong thing to do around the time George W. Bush got around to embracing it. But this argument seems awfully convenient, to say the least ...

Ezra goes on:

The argument over Bush's surge was in fact an argument over whether we needed a strategy which continued the war indefinitely, or a strategy where success was defined in an achievable way, and an end was sought to the conflict. The former won out, and administration replaced political goals with security goals. But given sufficient manpower and treasure, America could tamp down on violence in Iraq indefinitely. We could start up a draft, and deploy 7 million troops to the country, which would probably quiet down daily squabbling pretty quickly.

I'm sorry, but this is just revisionist history. A large part of the surge debate was about whether it would work - and not whether it would work "given sufficient manpower and treasure," but whether it would work given the more limited and within-our-means escalation of forces that the White House was proposing. Meanwhile, saying that the anti-surge voices on the left were calling for "a strategy where success was defined in an achievable way" is a polite way of saying that they were calling for a strategy in which we declared defeat and got the hell out. Unlike some people on the right, I don't think that this point of view was dishonorable and/or treasonous; my own support for the surge was of the deeply lukewarm variety, and part of my mind inclined toward the view that accepting defeat sooner rather than later represented the best way forward. But let's not pretend that this approach was something other than what it was: It was a blueprint for giving up on Iraq, cutting our losses and leaving, and calling it "a strategy where success was defined in an achievable way" is just a way of talking around the reality of defeat.

Ezra goes on to quote Matt Duss on "why many of us felt an endless deployment in Iraq was a frankly bad idea":

Leaving aside the fact that [the surge's] "victory" ... in addition to obviously representing a monumental climbdown from each and every one of the numerous justifications previously offered for the war, does not actually add up to "an Iraqi state" as much as to "a series of armed militia communities we're going to call Iraq," was this outcome really worth 4,000 American dead, over 28,000 wounded, and, by the end of 2008, some $600 billion in American treasure? Was it worth over half a million Iraqi dead, many times that maimed, and some 3 million displaced? Was it worth creating an open source laboratory for terrorists to develop and sharpen their tactics against the most technologically advanced military in the world, enabling them disseminate those tactics around the world via internet? Was it worth losing a thousand dollars at poker just to win twenty at blackjack?

And then here's Ezra himself on the same point:

We've sacrificed long-term strategy at the altar of short-term security. That made sense for the Bush administration, which didn't want to be judged a historic failure and so needed to wrestle the everyday metrics till they showed some semblance of an upward trajectory (fans of the Wire will recognize this strategy). But the political question -- which is, as it's always been, the central question -- remains unanswered. A few months ago, Maliki, the putative head of the government launched an assault on Sadr, who's arguably the most popular Shia leader in the country. CFR's Stephen Biddle, who's an optimist, thinks the military would overthrow Maliki if given the chance. And he sums up the situation saying, "What is achievable is sustainable stability, a sense of an end to large-scale violence that holds over a long period of time. That I think is potentially doable in Iraq if the United States expends the necessary effort. If we fail in that, there's a danger that this war could spread throughout the region. And that's a really powerful threat to U.S. interests." That's the universe of outcomes we went to war for? Defeat means catastrophic failure, and success means an absence of genocide?

These are strong arguments, but they're considerably stronger as points against having gone to war in the first place than as points against the surge. Was the invasion worth all the blood and treasure it's cost us? I say no. (Here's the most recent argument to the contrary, incidentally, which I'll try to take up a later date.) Was the surge worth the blood and treasure it cost us? That's a separate question, and one to which Duss and Ezra are largely non-responsive. When you've already lost a thousand dollars at poker, why wouldn't you take the opportunity to win a few of those dollars back? (Particularly when those "dollars" are counted in actual human lives.) Or again, the "absence of genocide" in Iraq may not be the outcome we went to war for in the first place, but in a landscape where genocide seemed like a real possibility it doesn't look all that shabby. And while it is of course quite possible that the surge will look like a long-term strategic failure, I would find arguments to that effect considerably more persuasive if they didn't seem so blase and dismissive ("some semblance of an upward trajectory" ... "the altar of short-term security" ... "twenty on blackjack") about the thousands and thousands of Iraqi lives that appear to have been saved, however temporarily, by the decision to add troops in 2006 rather than withdraw them.