Victory in Iraq

As the pressure builds on war critics to "acknowledge" the progress that's been made in Iraq, I imagine we'll see a few more reports like this one from The New York Times:

With American military successes outpacing political gains in Iraq, the Bush administration has lowered its expectation of quickly achieving major steps toward unifying the country, including passage of a long-stymied plan to share oil revenues and holding regional elections.

It's worth noting how fundamentally illogical the idea of "military successes outpacing political gains" is. The military is a branch of the American government. The government is run by politicians and political appointees. They frame objectives and policies designed to achieve those objectives. Subsidiary branches of the government then either do or don't made progress toward achieving those objectives. The stated goals of invading Iraq were to eliminate its nuclear weapons program, which failed because there was no such program, and to turn it into a shining beacon of democracy to inspire reformers throughout the region, which also failed since Iraq has instead become a scare story autocrats use to keep elites and middle class types unified behind the regime.

After several years of failure, a new military initiative was announced -- the "surge" -- and it's goal was to create an improvement in the security situation in Baghdad which (it was hypothesized) was the necessary precondition for a political resolution to Iraq's fundamental conflicts. The surge was tried, and American casualties went up and violence stayed at the same level and then violence declined and then US casualties decline and then it turned out that the surge had failed and the political situation was the same as it had been at the beginning.

And yet despite this failure, there are lots of happy faces in Washington. Why? Well it's not because despite the lack of "political progress" we've seen plenty of "military progress." Rather, it's because the "surge" helped achieve plenty of political objectives, just not the stated ones of the mission. It has, for example, caused Democratic Party elected officials to grow more timid in their rhetoric, which makes Republicans happy and also signals good news for Democratic Party hawks in their struggles with Democratic Party doves. What's more, insofar as one of the primary unstated political goals of the war has simply been to create a never-ending American military presence in Iraq, the "surge" has generated substantial progress toward that goal.

The American political system seems to operate as if spending on defense-related ventures doesn't come at a real cost. Propose a new domestic spending initiative, and people want to hear about your offsets. If you don't have offsets, you need new taxes. And you can't raise taxes. If you want to cut taxes, you can probably get away with it, but you'll face at least some political resistance. Defense spending, though, doesn't count -- it's completely shielded from scrutiny and we think nothing of tossing $10 billion here and $10 billion there until the end of time. Thus, if some gambit succeeds in making American casualty rates decline, something like Democrat Shawn Brimley's proposal that the next president "consider plateauing at a certain level at some future point in order to continue counter-terrorism and/or an advising mission" becomes much more viable.

In late 2005 and throughout 2006, it looked like we had a situation where the American mission in Iraq was going to become untenable. In early 2007, we were promised a "surge" whose purpose was to make the American mission in Iraq unnecessary. It was going to create a security environment conducive to the creation of a political settlement, thus allowing for the withdrawal of American troops. It didn't happen. And it's not clear that anyone ever believed it would happen. Instead, it's created a situation where it now once again looks -- as it did in 2003 and 2004 -- that we might be able to stay in Iraq forever. And, of course, if you don't consider financial costs to be costs, and don't consider small numbers of casualties to be costs, and don't believe in opportunity costs, and try not to worry to much about the risk of war with Iran, and don't mind the lack of benefits except to the egos of the war's supporters, then this looks like a pretty smart policy.

And, though I think its advocates are underestimating the odds that even their goalpost-shifting will fail, I'll concede at least that it very much might work.