Defining Victory Downward
Why was President Bush's decision more than a year ago to send another 30,000 troops to Iraq called "the surge"? I don't know who invented this label, but the word "surge" evokes images of the sea: a wave that sweeps in, and then sweeps back out again. The second part was crucial. What made the surge different from your ordinary troop deployment was that it was temporary. In fact, the surge was presented as part of a larger plan for troop withdrawal.
It was also, implicitly, part of a deal between Bush and the majority of Americans, who want out. The deal was: just let me have a few more soldiers to get Baghdad under control, and then everybody, or almost everybody, can pack up and come home.
In other words: you have to increase the troops in order to reduce them. This is so perverse on its face that it begins to sound zen-like and brilliant, like something out of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War." And in General David Petraeus, the administration conjured up its own Sun Tzu, a brilliant military strategist.
It is now widely considered beyond dispute that Bush has won his gamble. The surge was a terrific success. Choose your metric: attacks on American soldiers, car bombs, civilian deaths, potholes. They're all down, down, down. Lattes sold by street vendors are up. Performances of Shakespeare by local repertory companies have tripled.
Skepticism seems like sour grapes. If you opposed the surge, you have two choices. One is to admit that you were wrong, wrong wrong. The other is to sound as if you resent all the good news and remain eager for disaster. Too many opponents of the war have chosen option two.
But we needn't quarrel about all this, or deny the reality of the good news, to say that at the very least, the surge has not worked yet. The test is simple, and built into the concept of a surge: Has it allowed us to reduce troop levels to below where they were when it started? And the answer is no.
In fact, President Bush laid down the standard of success when he announced the surge more than a year ago: "If we increase our support at this crucial moment, and help the Iraqis break the current cycle of violence, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home." At the time, there were about 130,000 American soldiers in Iraq. Bush proposed to add up to 20,000 more troops. Although Bush never made any official promises about a timetable, the surge was generally described as lasting six to eight months.
By last summer the surge had actually added closer to 30,000 troops, making the total American troop count about 160,000. Today, there are still more than 150,000 American troops in Iraq. The official plan has been to get that number back down to 130,000 by July, and then to keep on going so that there would be about 100,000 American troops in Iraq by the time Bush leaves office.
Just lately, though, General Petraeus has come up with another zen-like idea: he calls it a "pause." And the administration has signed on, meaning that the total number of American troops in Iraq will remain at 130,000 for an undetermined period.
So the best that we can hope for, in terms of American troops risking their lives in Iraq, is that there will be just as many in July -- and probably in January, when Bush leaves office -- as there were a year ago. The surge will have surged in and surged out, leaving us back where we started. Maybe the situation in Baghdad, or all of Iraq, will have improved. But apparently it won't have improved enough to risk an actual reduction in the American troop commitment.
And consider how modest the administration's standard of success has become. Can there be any doubt that they would go for a reduction to 100,000 troops -- and claim victory -- if they had any confidence at all that the gains they brag about would hold at that level of support? The proper comparison isn't to the situation a year ago. It's to the situation before we got there. Imagine that you had been told in 2003 that when George W. Bush finished his second term, dozens of American soldiers and hundreds of Iraqis would be dying violently every month; that a major American goal would be getting the Iraqi government to temper its "debaathification" campaign so that Saddam Hussein's former henchmen could start running things again (because they know how); and that "only" 100,000 American troops would be needed to sustain this equilibrium.
You might have several words to describe this situation, but "success" would not be one of them.
Michael Kinsley is a columnist for washingtonpost.com and Time magazine.