Surging behind

Remember the surge? The idea behind the surge was that if we pump some more troops into Iraq to jack up security for a few precious months, maybe this will provide enough breathing space for the Iraqi government to hammer out a deal. It was always a hail Mary, a plan forged out of desperation -- the kind of thing that builds up tension at the climax of a movie but that typically fails miserably in real life.

So let's check in and see how it's working. Question one: have the troop increases led to some measurable increases in security for Iraqis? There is some dispute about this, even within Michael O'Hanlon's brain. So let's give the surge the benefit of the doubt and say it is indeed making Baghdad and Iraq as a whole more secure.

Now we turn to question two: Is the bump in security paying off? I.e., is the Iraqi government responding to the improved circumstances by moving toward a settlement on the tough issues (oil-revenue sharing, de-de-Baathification, federalization)?

Well, no. In fact, the Iraqi government has responded to the surge by falling apart.

This would seem to eliminate the surge's entire rationale, no? Even if there is a rapprochement with the Sunni Accordance Front (anything's possible), it's obvious that political reconciliation in Iraq is moving backward rather than forward.

So how does defense secretary Bob Gates explain this mess? “We probably all underestimated the depth of the mistrust and how difficult it would be for these guys to come together on legislation."

Oh Jesus H. Fuck, it's greeted-as-liberators all over again.

Still, now that Gates has acknowledged the error, presumably we're going to call off the surge and start figuring out how to wind this thing down with as few additional corpses as possible, right? After all, the evidence is in: temporary "breathing room" can't bring Iraq's warring factions to the table.


Mr. Gates offered a slightly different formulation on Thursday, arguing that political progress would come when Iraqi Army and police units proved able to take over primary responsibility for maintaining security in areas now largely controlled by American troops.

“I think the key is, not only establishing the security, but being able to hold on to those areas and for Iraqi Army and police to be able to provide the continuity of security over time,” he said. “It’s under that umbrella I think progress will be made at the national level.”

Bear with me, because I'm about to make a sports analogy, and we all know that's not my strong suit. But this is what's called moving the goalposts.

With the speed and alacrity characteristic of the U.S. military, commanders will be reviewing the surge strategy in September, at which point, Gates said (in the words of the NYT), "the administration would have to balance the relative lack of political progress with the somewhat encouraging security trends."

Since that last sports analogy seemed to go OK, I'm going to try something more ambitious: this is like saying that, in assessing a football strategy, we'll have to balance the fact that we didn't score any points and gave up three touchdowns with the fact that we did some really strong blocking. The security trends are only relevant inasmuch as they enable political progress. If the surge could be sustained indefinitely, you could argue that the security improvements benefit Iraqi civilians, the people who have suffered for all our blunders, so better security is a good thing on its own merits. But we can't sustain current troop levels too far into next year, no matter how much we lower recruiting standards/extend the tours of exhausted soldiers/starve commanders in Afghanistan of manpower.

As of now, the surge makes no sense as a military strategy. Until yesterday it had a logic, however optimistic. But now that logic is exhausted, and yet the surge continues.

The only possible conclusion is that this is happening because the surge is not a military strategy at all -- it's a narrative one. It's a way to keep a tired show on the air one more season, like an adorable kid cousin or a Very Special Wedding Episode. The surge is the moment when the Iraq War jumped the shark. Can we please, please cancel it?