December 4, 2007
Should Democrats Admit that the Surge Might be Working?
Among people who opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning or who came to oppose it as it became a disaster, there is a noticeable hesitancy to accept at face value recent reports that things are improving in Iraq: casualties are down, refugees are beginning to return, and there is a measure of cooperation between American troops and some erstwhile insurgents.
There are plenty of good reasons for skepticism. We’ve seen these “mission accomplished” moments before in Iraq: Remember the toppling of the statue of Saddam? Remember the capture of the actual Saddam, then the trial, then the execution? Remember the constitutions and elections and governments? All the turning points that turned out to be milestones on the road to nowhere?
But I think there’s another set of reasons that opponents of President Bush and the war are reluctant to admit that good things may be happening in Iraq. They can’t bear to admit the possibility that this ill-advised adventure could actually be heading toward some kind of positive outcome that would justify the decision to go to war or the strategies that have been pursued in prosecuting it.
Not to worry. Opponents of the war, whether original or more recent, should feel free to hope, even root, for the best possible outcome in Iraq without fearing that they are betraying the doubts and principles that led to their opposition. “All’s well that ends well” may be an appropriate resolution for a Shakespeare play, but not for a misbegotten war.
That the war in Iraq will in fact end well, however ending well is defined, is still, of course, far from a foregone conclusion. Will the current moment of good feeling turn out to be just a product of the heightened American troop presence? Will it last when US troop presence return to pre-surge levels, or when America starts bringing its troops home? What does the relative relaxation mean if it’s not accompanied by political stability? What if, as Washington Post columnist David Ignatius has suggested, the decreased violence is the political-military equivalent of the draw play in football, in which offensive linemen allow their defensive counterparts to rush past them toward the backpedaling quarterback, only to have the running back run past them for a big gain? In other words, what if, in one way or another, the current moment is a false dawn, or transitory?
And what would constitute ending well? Political reconciliation? Civil peace? An extended period—how long, exactly?—in which US and Iraqi troop and civilian casualties are about where they are now? A lull long enough to let the US claim victory and go home?
But even agreeing on what ending well would look like, even achieving that state of affairs, would not retroactively validate the decisions made and the policies pursued over the past five years.
Not because the results of the war don’t correspond to the originally-announced objectives of the war. The US didn’t go into World War II to stop Hitler or the Holocaust, the outcomes that turned out to be the war’s primary accomplishments, but because we were attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor. Lincoln entered into the Civil War to hold the union together, not to free the slaves, the outcome the war is remembered for. Yet most people, then and now, would say that those outcomes justified the costs in lives and finances.
How many Americans would say that about the war in Iraq, when the war began or now? How many would say that ridding Iraq of a brutal—but WMD-less—dictator justified the deaths of 4000 American troops? How many votes would have been cast in Congress to authorize the use of force against Iraq if the administration had forecast that the war could last at least five years and cost $1.2 trillion? What if they had admitted that when we finally left Iraq, the government we would leave behind would likely not be a democratic oasis from which freedom might spread across the region but at best a country like Lebanon, poised on the razor’s edge between a deeply flawed proto-democracy and a Hobbesian war of all against all? How many would have thought that such results would be worth such a price? How many think so today?
That doesn’t mean that supporters of Bush and the war won’t declare victory—aren’t already declaring victory—before the war has a chance to head south again. After all, they declared victory less than sixty days into a war that is now four years old and counting. And it doesn’t mean that Bush’s approval ratings won’t ease a bit and that John McCain’s poll numbers won’t increase a bit if things continue to go well in Iraq.
But what would hurt Democrats much more than any success the surge may enjoy is refusing to acknowledge apparent improvement. Denial of the obvious would only feed the impression that Democrats’ antipathy toward the president and his policies is so virulent that they are willing to countenance the further emiseration of Iraq to score partisan points.