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The Surge: Debunking the Myth

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The Surge: Debunking the Myth

There’s an illuminating article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs detailing the events that led to the Sunni Awakening and the subsequent (relative) peace that has been credited to the U.S. troop surge in Iraq. Increasing opposition to the war among the American public and, in turn, the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006 signaled to Iraqis—specifically the Sunnis, who viewed the Shiites, the U.S. and the Iraqi faction of al-Qaeda as occupiers of their land—that American troops weren’t going to stay indefinitely, thereby removing us from their shitlist and forcing them to protect their interests while we still had their backs. With Sunnis and the U.S. allied, they were able to eradicate much of the insurgent and intertribal violence in the Anbar Province. The lesson learned: the risk of abandonment will force the Iraqi people to action, and writer Colin H. Kahl proposes a “conditional engagement,” which entails “a phased redeployment of combat forces with a commitment to providing residual support for the Iraqi government if and only if it moves toward genuine reconciliation.”

The second half of the article comes courtesy of William E. Odom, a retired three-star General and former Director of the National Security Agency who believes that the focus should be on regional and tribal stability (as exemplified by the Sunni Awakening) rather than forcing a centralized democracy. Odom thinks the U.S. should leave Iraq post-haste; a gradual redeployment of troops, he says, would put our soldiers at risk. I’ve long held the belief that pulling out of Iraq unconditionally would be a mistake, that hemorrhaging begins the moment you remove the knife. And it’s just bad manners to walk into someone else’s house, make a mess and then leave without helping to clean it up. That is, if they want you to help. Two weeks ago, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he supported Barack Obama’s proposal that U.S. forces leave the country within 16 months.

Last week, John McCain took to calling Obama’s position “political,” telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that his rival “chose to take a political path that would have helped him get the nomination of his party.” Let’s say his claim is true (it’s not: Obama has been against the war from the very beginning and has always supported a timetable for withdrawal): If a “political” stance means changing positions to reflect voters’ will (and then, of course, following through by legislating policy as such), then “political” is exactly what politicians are—and should—be. The bigger problem with McCain’s latest attacks, however, is their inherent hypocrisy. The presumptive Republican nominee has changed his positions on almost every issue of substance, from taxes to energy to Iraq, while endorsements from religious leaders he once called “agents of intolerance” were greeted with open arms. All of these changes in position occurred during McCain’s campaign for his party’s nomination.

McCain’s most duplicitous position, though, is on none other than the big, throbbing surge. The senator and his surrogates have been attempting—and succeeding, largely—to paint the events of the surge as black and white. That Obama’s refusal to acknowledge the so-called success of the troop escalation is perceived as a negative by the general public underscores the lack of understanding of the multitude of factors that have helped quell violence in Iraq (to say nothing of McCain’s own apparent lack of understanding on the issue). The burden lays with both McCain himself and the “biased” media he’s been—to quote his presently “former” campaign advisor Phil Gramm—whining about for weeks. The media, in particular, has failed to convey nuance or correct guests when they regurgitate talking points or flat-out lies (they can’t all be Chris Matthews, for better or worse). Of course, simplifying—if not being completely dishonest about—the factors that led to the decrease in violence in Iraq by trumpeting the success of the surge could score Obama political points with certain segments of the voting bloc, which is exactly what McCain is accusing him of doing anyway.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.