Feeling good about the U.S., not sold on the surge
by Dan Drezner Praising a book is boring to readers of book reviews, so let’s get this out of the way quickly. The Gamble is a well-researched analysis of the surge that also happens to be a gripping and honest read. Partisans on both sides will now be permanently out of sorts with Ricks — ...
by Dan Drezner
Praising a book is boring to readers of book reviews, so let’s get this out of the way quickly. The Gamble is a well-researched analysis of the surge that also happens to be a gripping and honest read. Partisans on both sides will now be permanently out of sorts with Ricks — those on the right for Fiasco‘s withering critique on the first few years of the war, and those on the left for this book, in which good words are said about the American Enterprise Institute. For those of us more comfortable with the reality-based community, this is all to the good.
Furthermore, in a time of doom and gloom, the book made me feel surprisingly good about America. The Gamble demonstrates the dynamic learning capabilities of the U.S. military. America’s armed forces did something that Ricks acknowledges to be extraordinary — they regained the strategic initiative in Iraq after four years of being on the losing side of the conflict (the contrast with the British military’s strategic stasis in southern Iraq is stark).
As a political scientist, it was also cheering to observe that many of the architects of the surge strategy*, from David Petraeus on down, acquired poli sci or international affairs degrees during their military service (Bill Rapp, one of Petraeus’ key aides, was in my entering Ph.D. class at Stanford). Petraeus and Ray Odierno potentially find themselves in rarefied company — in American military history, only George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Matthew Ridgway pulled off this kind of dramatic strategic change.
I use the word “potentially” in the last paragraph because The Gamble left me vexed about the past and future counterfactuals about the surge strategy. As Marc asked yesterday, I kept wondering, “what if there had been no surge?”
The book implies in Chapter Seven that the outcome would have been disastrous for Iraq and for the United States in the region. That may well be true, but a fuller examination of all the possibilities would have been good to see. A realpolitik logic suggests that a withdrawal strategy might have served the United States equally well. Such a move would have dumped much of Iraq onto Iran’s plate, transferring a strategic liability from the Washington to Tehran. The Sunni states bordering Iraq would have had little choice but to balance against Iran, pushing them further into America’s arms. From a humanitarian perspective, this would have been a calamitous result, but from a geopolitical perspective, the United States would have saved itself significant amounts of blood and treasure.
The future counterfactuals are equally vexing. The Gamble suggests that while Iraq is significantly less violent in 2009 than in 2006, it is more politically unstable. Here I will throw caution into the wind and part ways with both Tom Ricks and Marc Lynch — the political situation strikes me as dramatically improved since 2006. Nouri-al Maliki is no Thomas Jefferson, but neither is he Nguyen Van Thieu. The new SOFA agreement clarifies the future relationship between the U.S. and Iraq. The recent provincial elections do not appear to have brought about an uptick in violence (though political assassination might be in vogue), nor have they improved Moqtada al-Sadr’s fortunes. The Gamble‘s last chapter and epilogue suggests that Sadr is simply lying in wait, having infiltrated much of Iraq’s security apparatus. I certainly can’t refute that possibility, but it does suggest that Sadr possesses superhuman levels of patience for an aspiring political leader.
Isn’t there an alternative possibility — that Sadr miscalculated when he ceded the tactical advantage to government forces in Basra and Sadr City? If nothing else, the surge showed Iraqis the virtue of not resolving political questions through street fighting. Could this newfound appreciation for peace constrain the ability of Maliki challengers to return to insurgency tactics? Is it possible that significant political progress has been achieved since The Gamble was written?
The most troubling aspect of The Gamble, however, was the process through which the surge strategy became U.S. policy. On the one hand, a key factor was the electoral disaster that Republicans experienced during the 2006 midterm elections. This is a good thing — it’s nice to know that policy failures are still punished at the ballot box.
On the other hand, the ways in which the architects of the surge got their way seems like an exact replay of how the architects of the invasion and initial occupation got their way — operating through bureaucratic backchannels and endruns, ideologically simpatico think tanks, and — of course — Dick Cheney’s office. For those of us who want the policymaking process to work, this looks like another fiasco. Petraeus’s decision to co-opt the Sunni insurgents, for example, was made without consulting the president. Doesn’t that echo J. Paul Bremer’s disastrous decision to disband the Iraqi military without consultation? Petraeus, Odierno, and Jack Keane might have been right on the merits, but to get their way they bypassed the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CENTCOM commander, the State Department, and the NSC interagency process. The Gamble argues that these actors were impediments to the right strategy. All well and good, but what is to stop another cluster of bureaucratic “insurgents” from bypassing the chain of command and telling political leaders what they want to hear on, say, Afghanistan, North Korea or Iran? Is there a need for another, more ambitious version of Goldwater-Nichols?
A raft of books (cough, cough) are coming out about the failures of American policymakers to develop viable means of strategic policy planning. The Gamble suggests that such failures are endemic to the American political system — and that is the most sobering lesson of all.
*By surge, I am referring to the new counterinsurgency strategy, which included the turning of Sunni insurgents, a reduced emphasis on force protection, and the elevated levels of troops.
Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and the author of The Ideas Industry. Twitter: @dandrezner
More from Foreign Policy
No, the World Is Not Multipolar
The idea of emerging power centers is popular but wrong—and could lead to serious policy mistakes.
America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want
Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.
America Can’t Stop China’s Rise
And it should stop trying.
The Morality of Ukraine’s War Is Very Murky
The ethical calculations are less clear than you might think.