The Magazine

Rewards of Wisdom

As McCain's stand on the surge shows, experience cannot be separated from judgment.

Aug 11, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 45 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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In January 2007, with Iraq in flames and Democrats set to take over Congress, President Bush had two options. He could side with Senator Barack Obama and begin a gradual drawdown of American troops in Iraq, leaving the Iraqis to a grim fate and dealing a serious and consequential blow to American interests in the Middle East and beyond. Or he could side with Senator John McCain and change strategies, sending additional troops to Iraq in an effort to secure the population and assist the Iraqis in their fight against al Qaeda and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias--the so-called "surge" policy. This latter option was the one Bush eventually adopted, of course. And for that, he deserves the thanks of Americans, of Iraqis, and indeed the world.

The surge is over. The last of the reinforcements sent to Iraq have returned home. The Iraq those troops leave behind is an utterly transformed place. Since their first offensive operations began in July 2007, overall attacks have been cut by 80 percent. The sectarian bloodshed staining Iraq in 2006 and 2007 has almost entirely abated. American casualties have fallen dramatically, with U.S. combat deaths in Iraq in July 2008 the lowest monthly total since the war began more than five years ago. Al Qaeda in Iraq has been routed, and the global al Qaeda organization faces what CIA director Michael Hayden calls a "near-strategic defeat" in Iraq. Shiite radical Moktada al-Sadr remains "studying" in Iran, while his militia has been cut to pieces by U.S. and Iraqi troops. The Iraqi army is progressing admirably; more than two-thirds of Iraqi combat battalions now take the lead in operations in their areas.

As the advocates of the surge predicted, a population that feels secure is a population more willing and able to reach political compromise. The Iraqi government has met almost all of the "benchmarks" the U.S. Congress set for it, and, although a national hydrocarbons law remains elusive, the country's oil wealth is being divided among its 18 provinces. That wealth is increasing dramatically as security has allowed oil production to return to prewar levels (and as prices have soared). The major Sunni political bloc has rejoined the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The Awakening, which began in Sunni-dominated Anbar province in the fall of 2006, has blossomed into a trans-sectarian, national, grassroots political movement. And Iraq is busy preparing for provincial and national elections that will further accelerate reconciliation by broadening and deepening the political participation of all the major groups.

It is worth pausing to reflect on what might have happened had Bush given in to popular opinion in January 2007 and abandoned Iraq. No one, of course, can say with absolute assurance how things would have turned out had the president opted to listen to Senator Obama rather than Senator McCain. But, at the very least, it is foolish to suggest that any of the military or political progress we have made in the last year and a half could have been achieved with a reduced U.S. "footprint" in Iraq. After all, it was the "light footprint" strategy of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Generals John Abizaid and George Casey that allowed the turmoil in Iraq to spin out of control between 2003 and 2007. The fact that America was continually looking for the exit during those years forced our allies in Iraq to hedge their bets and allowed our enemies to raise the pressure, eagerly anticipating the moment when they would have Iraq all to themselves.

Had Bush listened to Obama and decided to retreat last year, not only would the progress we see today not have occurred, but it is quite likely that the situation in Iraq would be much worse than it was at the end of 2006. Bereft of U.S. security, Iraqis would have turned to the nearest sectarian militia for protection from the widening civil war. An empowered and belligerent Iran would have moved to fill the vacuum America left behind, thus allowing the mullahs in Tehran to pursue unchecked their policy of "Lebanonization" in Iraq. And Al Qaeda in Iraq would have continued its barbaric killing spree, using the departing American soldiers as a recruitment tool, evidence of American weakness and unreliability. It would not be al Qaeda but the United States facing a "near strategic defeat" on Osama bin Laden's chosen front. And a defeated America would have led to a more dangerous world.