Surging to a Stalemate

Are we really winning in Iraq?


When it comes to the Bush administration's strategy in Iraq, the Republican presidential candidates all seem to be auditioning for the lead in a remake of "Pollyanna." In their eyes, it has been the greatest triumph since the liberation of Paris.

John McCain crows that the Democratic presidential aspirants "continue to deny the facts on the ground that we are succeeding." Mitt Romney says "the surge is working." Mike Huckabee agrees. Rudy Giuliani boasts that he supported it from the start. Only the perennial skunk at the garden party, Ron Paul, declines to recite the catechism.

The GOP candidates are hardly alone in calling the surge, announced a year ago, a stunning success. The administration and its allies insist that the decline in violence and U.S. casualties are proof we have turned the corner. But as with alleged breakthroughs in the past, this one turns out to be composed mostly of wishful thinking and selective vision.

Even the claim of improved security is a major overstatement. True, American military casualties have dropped sharply over the past year, and many Iraqi neighborhoods are no longer the charnel houses they used to be. But Americans are still dying at the rate of one every day. And violent civilian Iraqi deaths, according to the independent website, have averaged about 1,000 a month since September.

That's far lower than in last January, but it's no better than in 2005, and it's well above the levels of 2004—when Iraq was already in the grip of bloody chaos. To pronounce that reduction a success is like driving your car into a lake and then bragging when you pull it halfway out.

The more sober supporters of the war recognize we have far to go. "Very real progress is anything but stable victory, even in the area where the U.S. and Iraqi surge has been most effective," writes Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The surge, he says, "has not brought lasting stability and security" even to Baghdad.

The surge itself may not be as important as another change in strategy—joining forces with Sunni militias previously allied with al Qaida. "Paying them not to blow us up" is how one American sergeant summarized it for the Los Angeles Times.

For the moment, at least, that tactic has served to quell attacks in some areas. But it comes at a high price: strengthening groups that, once we leave, may revolt against the Shiite-dominated central government.

Mark Kimmitt, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle Eastern affairs, recently said that if he had to guess the chance that the surge can bring stability, he'd say "maybe it's three in 10, maybe it's 50-50, if we play our cards right." That glum forecast may be too generous, since playing our cards wrong has been the hallmark of the occupation.

The surge, it's easy to forget, was not intended merely to improve security, but to facilitate political progress. But of the various legislative actions Bush demanded of the Iraqi government a year ago, the only one it has passed is a new law to allow former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party back in government.

Even that change was of dubious import, since some Sunnis—who are supposed to be the chief beneficiaries—say it's worse than the status quo. But The New York Times reports that some Shiites "hailed it because it would ban members of even the lowest party levels from the most important ministries: justice, interior, defense, finance and foreign."

So this supposed step toward reconciliation may obstruct it yet again. What has been clear in recent months is what was always clear: Iraqis are not ready to make the compromises needed to create a stable, unified nation. And as long as we stay in Iraq, they don't have to.

One key gauge of success for the administration's strategy is whether Iraqis will be able to take over running their own country. By that measure, it's a failure. Iraqi defense minister Abdul Qadir says the government won't be able to take full responsibility for internal security until 2012—or to handle outside threats until 2018 or 2020.

What we have achieved in Iraq is not victory but an expensive stalemate that appears to have no end. John McCain, asked how long he is willing to keep American forces in Iraq, replied, "Maybe a hundred years." If that's the goal, we're on the right track.