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The surge to nowhere

Published: February 29, 2008
Section: Opinions


During a visit to Baghdad in the late 1980’s, American journalist Tony Horowitz picked up a copy of the local newspaper The Baghdad Observor. On the front page was a story proudly proclaiming that ‘sixteen strategic mountain peaks’ had been captured from the Iranians. All of those mountains were Iraqi; their original capture by Iranian forces had never been reported.

The current debate over the success of the Iraqi ‘surge’ has followed much the same path. In recent months supporters of the war, who never admitted that anything had gone wrong in the first place and heatedly denied that there was a civil war going on in Iraq, have been loudly proclaiming a turnaround in the Iraqi situation, with reduced violence and the defeat of al-Qaeda. General David Petraeus was hailed as a second Ulysses S. Grant and many conservative pundits suggested he should be made Time’s Man of the Year.

It’s a beautiful idea ruined by some ugly facts. Coalition casualties remain high; in fact, the months after the surge has been among the deadliest so far, Iraqi civilian deaths have lowered somewhat, but remain higher then 2005 levels according to the Iraq Body Count..

While the defeat of al-Qaeda is good news, al-Qaeda was always one of the smallest and least influential militant groups in Iraq, never numbering more than a thousand active members. The US government managed to dispose of them by arming and funding radical Sunni militias who remain the sworn enemies of the elected government in Baghdad. Also, I suppose it is bad taste to point out that al-Qaeda was not a presence in Iraq before the invasion.

Ethnic conflict remains intractable, with the Iraqi parliament unable to form a stable governing coalition due to frequent defections and intra-party revolts. The intermarriage rate between Sunnis and Shi’ites has plummeted to almost zero. Four million Iraqi citizens still reside in foreign refugee camps, mostly in Jordan and Syria.

Of course, the point of this whole discussion is not whether or not the US is winning in Iraq at all. The point is to create a narrative, a narrative of betrayal and squandered glory, in which defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory by liberals in Congress and the anti-war movement. The stabbed-in-the-back trope is a recurring theme in world history, and has found particular favor here in America. As in Europe after the Warsaw Pact, as in Korea after the armistice, as in Vietnam – or, indeed, as in Scooby-Doo – we would’ve gotten away with it, if it weren’t for those meddling kids.