Considered from this perspective, Sen. John McCain’s recent assertion that “history has already made a judgment about the surge” of troops in Iraq in 2007 — a statement meant to disqualify Chuck Hagel as defense secretary for having the gall to question the strategy at the time — qualifies as a nifty sound bite but is suspect on at least two counts. It is almost certainly premature. And more important, it is profoundly misleading.
Anti-government insurgents in Iraq continue to wreak havoc. U.S. forces may have left the scene — the troop surge facilitating their departure — but the conflict continues, its outcome yet undetermined. Granted, bombs blowing up in Baghdad now fall into that vast reservoir of facts that Washington chooses to ignore.
The USO’s new Warrior and Family Center is its largest facility yet and offers service members and their families what they said they needed most. From a theater and golf simulator, to meditation rooms and computer classes, videojournalist Zoeann Murphy gives us a look at the new facility through the eyes of wounded vets.
So what did the surge accomplish? With the Bush administration having long since given up on actually winning, the surge — in which 26,000 additional American troops were deployed to Iraq — saved the United States from having to acknowledge outright defeat. Gen. David Petraeus, who commanded the troops during the surge and became its public face, thereby provided an exasperated military with a feel-good moment and gave die-hard proponents of Operation Iraqi Freedom a chance to exchange fist-bumps. That they would savor the moment is perfectly understandable. But the moment was always destined to pass.
Recall when Richard Nixon, back in 1970, turned U.S. forces loose on Cambodia. Enormously controversial at the time, the offensive allowed frustrated troops a chance to get in some licks against an elusive adversary, while back home the Vietnam hawks thumped their chests. Yet any tactical advantage gained by going after North Vietnamese sanctuaries came too late to affect the war’s outcome. Ever so briefly, the Cambodian incursion seemed like a really big deal, Nixon himself calling it “the most successful military operation of the entire war.” That it may have been; but it settled nothing and soon faded to insignificance. I suspect that a similar fate awaits the surge.
The importance attributed to the surge by devotees such as McCain distracts attention from matters of far greater significance. It’s the equivalent of using the Battle of New Orleans as a basis for evaluating the War of 1812. Of course, in contrast to Petraeus, Gen. Andrew Jacksondefeated his adversary. When the shooting stopped, it was the surviving Redcoats — not the surviving Americans — who packed up and left. Still, take your cues from Johnny Horton, and you might conclude that Jackson single-handedly redeemed an entire war. Take your cues from McCain, and you might conclude that, two centuries later, Petraeus did likewise.
In reality, the heroics at New Orleans proved irrelevant to the outcome of the war, which the Treaty of Ghent had ended two weeks before. The most that can be said for Jackson’s victory is that it distracted attention from the egregious failures of political and military leadership that had marked James Madison’s War. So, too, for a time Petraeus’s victory (if that’s what it was) might do the same for George W. Bush’s War, likewise marred by glaring errors committed at the top. It’s the oldest technique in the campaigner’s playbook: Inflate a glimmer of good news to divert attention from all the bad.