By Peter Beinart
Sunday, January 18, 2009
It's no longer a close call: President Bush was right about the surge. According to Michael O'Hanlon and Jason Campbell of the Brookings Institution, the number of Iraqi war dead was 500 in November of 2008, compared with 3,475 in November of 2006. That same month, 69 Americans died in Iraq; in November 2008, 12 did.
Violence in Anbar province is down more than 90 percent over the past two years, the New York Times reports. Returning to Iraq after long absences, respected journalists Anthony Shadid and Dexter Filkins say they barely recognize the place.
Is the surge solely responsible for the turnaround? Of course not. Al-Qaeda alienated the Sunni tribes; Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army decided to stand down; the United States assassinated key insurgent and militia leaders, all of which mattered as much if not more than the increase in U.S. troops. And the decline in violence isn't necessarily permanent. Iraq watchers warn that communal distrust remains high; if someone strikes a match, civil war could again rage out of control.
Moreover, even if the calm endures, that still doesn't justify the Bush administration's initial decision to go to war, which remains one of the great blunders in American foreign policy history. But if Iraq overall represents a massive stain on Bush's record, his decision to increase America's troop presence in late 2006 now looks like his finest hour. Given the mood in Washington and the country as a whole, it would have been far easier to do the opposite. Politically, Bush took the path of most resistance. He endured an avalanche of scorn, and now he has been vindicated. He was not only right; he was courageous.
It's time for Democrats to say so. During the campaign they rarely did for fear of jeopardizing Barack Obama's chances of winning the presidency. But today, the hesitation is less tactical than emotional. Most Democrats think Bush has been an atrocious president, and they want to usher him out of office with the jeers he so richly deserves. Even if they suspect, in their heart of hearts, that he was right about the surge, they don't want to give him the satisfaction.
Yet they should -- not for his sake but for their own. Because Bush has been such an unusually bad president, an entire generation of Democrats now takes it for granted that on the big questions, the right is always wrong. Older liberals remember the Persian Gulf War, which most congressional Democrats opposed and most congressional Republicans supported -- and the Republicans were proven right. They also remember the welfare reform debate of the mid-1990s, when prominent liberals predicted disaster, and disaster didn't happen.
Younger liberals, by contrast, have had no such chastening experiences. Watching the Bush administration flit from disaster to disaster, they have grown increasingly dismissive of conservatives in the process. They consume partisan media, where Republican malevolence is taken for granted. They laugh along with the "Colbert Report," the whole premise of which is that conservatives are bombastic, chauvinistic and dumb. They have never had the ideologically humbling experience of watching the people whose politics they loathe be proven right.
In this way, they are a little like the Bushies themselves. One reason the Bush administration fell prey to such monumental hubris was that it didn't take its critics seriously. Convinced that the Reagan years had forever vindicated deregulated capitalism and unfettered American might, the Bushies blithely dismissed liberals who warned about deregulation, or Europeans who warned about military force, on the grounds that history had consistently proved those critics wrong. "You want to know what I really think of the Europeans?" a top Bush official declared during the Iraq debate. "I think they have been wrong on just about every major international issue for the past 20 years."
Today, by contrast, it is conservatives who have been proven wrong again and again. Politically and intellectually, the right is discredited, and the arguments of its rump minority in Congress will be easy to dismiss. Liberal self-confidence is sky-high.
That's why it's important to admit that Bush was right about the surge. Doing so would remind Democrats that no one political party, or ideological perspective, has a monopoly on wisdom. That recognition can be the difference between ambition -- which the Obama presidency must exhibit -- and hubris, which it can ill afford.
Being proven right too many times is dangerous. It breeds intellectual arrogance and complacency. As the Democrats prepare to take over Washington, they should publicly acknowledge that on the surge, they were wrong. That acknowledgment may not do much for Bush's legacy, but it could do wonders for their own.
Peter Beinart, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes a monthly column for The Post.