Iraq doesn't have to last forever

by Marc Lynch

The Gamble is perhaps the best of the rapidly proliferating crop of "Iraq surge" books.

While it shares the generally admiring tone for the architects of the surge common in such books, it maintains the critical vantage point which characterized Fiasco. It captures effectively the inherent tensions and limitations of the surge strategy, especially the tenuous relationship between security and political progress. It moves comfortably back and forth from the tough street fighting in Iraqi cities to the political battles in Washington DC. And its combination of skepticism and empathy allows it to offer a persuasive mixed verdict on the ultimate impact of the surge. 

The Gamble's main flaw is that it pulls back from the brink before fully grappling with the profound gap between its grim analytical conclusions about the surge and the author's clear admiration for the men who pulled it off. Ricks concludes that:

It is unclear in 2009 if he did much more than lengthen the war... Petraeus found tactical success -- that is, improved security -- but not the clear political breakthrough that would have meant unambiguous strategic success.  At the end of the surge, the fundamental political problems facing Iraq were the same ones as when it began." (p.9)  

But if that's the case, shouldn't that more fully shape the evaluation of those who pushed for and implemented the surge?     

Ricks has been coming under withering criticism from some on the Left for his conclusion that the United States will likely remain in Iraq for many years to come. This is ironic, because he arrives there in no small part because he agrees with many of the main Center-Left criticisms of the surge: that its tactical successes did not add up to a strategic victory, that security gains were not leading to political reconciliation, that the Awakenings risked fragmenting the Iraqi state. Ricks focuses with brutal precision on the never-resolved tension between the military successes of the surge and its political objectives. For all his admiration for the architects of the surge, his reporting and analysis largely vindicate the perspective of the skeptics -- and shows that many of those on the inside shared their concerns all along.

His characterization of the status quo is important because, to paraphrase The Gamble's most well-publicized tagline, the political battles for which this book may be remembered probably haven't happened yet. The Gamble should be essential reading for those anticipating Republican efforts to blame Obama for squandering the "success" of the surge if things go bad. Ricks shows clearly how fragile a situation the surge has left behind, and how few of the underlying political problems it resolved. This should deeply complicate the narrative on which the potential political attack would be based -- but should also remind those on the other side of how likely such backsliding may really be. Ricks makes clear that the constant warnings from Petraeus, Odierno, Crocker, and so many others of the fragility of the security gains were never just window-dressing. Ricks doesn't find many people on the inside claiming that the war is over, or that it has been won. That might not be convenient for those anxious for rapid withdrawals, but it does accurately reflect their views.

Is it possible to recognize the fragility of the situation in Iraq today and still advocate for early, significant troop withdrawals? Yes. The key is the contentious relationship between security gains and political reconciliation.  Advocates of the surge and of a "go slow" approach on troop withdrawals from Iraq have generally argued that security gains would lead to political reconciliation. 

I've argued repeatedly (see November's Foreign Affairs and in a January post on ForeignPolicy.com), that improved but unconditional security actually reduces the incentives for Iraqi politicians to make painful concessions (and hence the strategic importance of a credible commitment to withdrawal). Both sides of this great debate will find support in recent events. But it is striking to read General Ray Odierno musing to Ricks in December 2008 that:

"What we're finding is that as Iraq has become more secure, they've... moved backwards, in some cases, to their hardline positions." (p.296; for more skepticism about political reconciliation among the MNF-I brain trust, see 261-272). 

That's just as I warned. It's obviously not the last word on this crucial analytical and strategic argument -- but it should be sobering.  

Ricks also shows, as have many of the other recent Surge Books, that many in the Bush White House were fully aware by 2006 (at least) that its critics were right about conditions in Iraq even as it waged a scorched-earth political campaign against them in public. They may have bought short-term political support at the expense of their longer-term political credibility with the American public -- a classic example of tactical gains undermining the strategic objective.  After the dishonest rhetoric of 2005 and 2006, is it any wonder that claims of progress in 2007 met with such skepticism? Petraeus himself clearly recognized the dangers of such rhetoric; as Ricks reports, he "began keeping an eagle eye on the president's speeches, using their weekly video teleconferences to convey caution against inflating the rhetoric. He usually succeeded, but not always." (p.164)

Two major flaws do mar the book, for all its strengths. 

First is the near-complete absence of the Status of Forces Agreement, which Iraqis call the Withdrawal Agreement. The SOFA sets an end-date for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, at December 31, 2011. It also sets a series of binding provisions for the behavior and deployment of U.S. troops in the interim, including returning American troops to the bases this summer and giving Iraqi political leaders say in authorizing operations. This is now a legal, binding requirement with obvious relevance for the future of America's role in Iraq. If a referendum set for this summer fails, the required American exit may be even quicker.

But to the best of my ability to discover, there is not a single mention of the SOFA or even the negotiations in the entire book. Ricks may feel that the United States will ignore these requirements, or that the Iraqis don't really mean it, or that they are a bad idea. But he makes no argument one way or the other, instead acting as if it simply doesn't exist. To the extent that this reflects the mindset among his key informants, that's a problem.  It's also baffling given the tremendous amount of MNF-I and the U.S. Embassy's time in 2008 which was spent on these negotiations.

Second is the near-complete absence of Iraqis. In 325 pages of text, I could find only ten pages which quoted an Iraqi of any description, and only two unmediated by an American military official. Page 41 quotes two average Iraqis, and p.45 quotes a Sunni member of Parliament and several ordinary Iraqis. Every other quote of an Iraqi which I could find involves an American officer's account or (occasionally) a newspaper account.

This is not unique to Ricks -- virtually all of the recent surge of books about the surge rely almost exclusively on American sources, and Ricks is far from the worst offender. This tells us something extremely important about the American media's approach to the war -- it's about America, as understood by Americans and as shaped by American actions. This renders the Iraqis themselves invisible, passive recipients of American policies or inscrutable obstacles to be overcome. What about their perceptions, their interests, their fears, or their expectations? What do they think about the implications of U.S. strategy or policy debates? It isn't like Iraqi politicians are difficult to speak to, whether in the Green Zone or on their frequent trips through Washington, DC.  

Finally, I would like to pose the question which rarely gets seriously addressed in this debate: what if there had been no surge?

None of the current crop of Surge Literature really grapples with this counter-factual, though Ricks comes the closest (see his chapter seven). Most simply assume the worst-case counter-factual, that without the surge Iraqi civil war would have escalated to genocide and the United States would have fled with tail between legs. But this is simply not a sure thing. By the time the surge brigades arrived in Iraq, the Sunni Awakening's turn against al-Qaeda had long since taken place (in the fall of 2006). The sectarian cleansing of Baghdad was far advanced (and continued through the surge). Moqtada al-Sadr's calculations vis a vis Iran, competing Shia groups, and the United States were already changing. Strategic exhaustion may already have been setting in. Had the Iraq Study Group been heeded, would Iraq today look much as it does now -- only with half the U.S. military presence and a much faster track towards political reconciliation?

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