"The exchange that followed was remarkable. In strongly supporting the surge in Afghanistan, Hillary told the president that her opposition to the surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary [in 2008]. She went on to say, 'The Iraq surge worked.'
"The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying."
(Obama's aides have since disputed Gates's suggestion that the President indicated that his opposition to the Iraq "surge" was political, noting that he had always opposed the Iraq War. The Clinton team has not challenged Gates's account.)
But the exchange, as recounted by Gates, indicates that Clinton not only let her political needs dictate her position on an important national security issue, but that she accepts as true the superficial conventional wisdom about the "successful surge" in Iraq.
While that is indeed Official Washington's beloved interpretation -- in part because influential neocons believe the "surge" rehabilitated their standing after the WMD fiasco and the disastrous war -- the reality was that the Iraq "surge" never achieved its stated goal of buying time to reconcile the country's financial and sectarian divides, which remain bloody to this day.
The Unsuccessful Surge
But the truth that Hillary Clinton apparently doesn't recognize is that the "surge" was only "successful" in that it delayed the ultimate American defeat until Bush and his neocon cohorts had vacated the White House and the blame for the failure could be shifted, at least partly, to President Obama.
Other than sparing "war president" Bush the humiliation of having to admit defeat, the dispatching of 30,000 additional U.S. troops in early 2007 did little more than get nearly 1,000 additional Americans killed -- almost one-quarter of the war's total U.S. deaths -- along with what certainly was a much higher number of Iraqis.
For example, WikiLeaks's "Collateral Murder" video depicted one 2007 scene during the "surge" in which U.S. firepower mowed down a group of Iraqi men, including two Reuters news staffers, walking down a street in Baghdad. The attack helicopters then killed a Good Samaritan when he stopped his van to take survivors to a hospital (and severely wounded two children in the van).
A more rigorous analysis of what happened in Iraq in 2007-08 -- apparently beyond Hillary Clinton's abilities or inclination -- would trace the decline in Iraqi sectarian violence mostly to strategies that predated the "surge" and were implemented in 2006 by Generals Casey and Abizaid.
Among their initiatives, Casey and Abizaid deployed a highly classified operation to eliminate key al-Qaeda leaders, most notably the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June 2006. Casey and Abizaid also exploited growing Sunni animosities toward al-Qaeda extremists by paying off Sunni militants to join the so-called "Awakening" in Anbar Province.
And, as the Sunni-Shiite sectarian killings reached horrendous levels in 2006, the U.S. military assisted in the de facto ethnic cleansing of mixed neighborhoods by helping Sunnis and Shiites move into separate enclaves, thus making the targeting of ethnic enemies more difficult. In other words, the flames of violence were likely to have abated whether Bush ordered the "surge" or not.
Radical Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr also helped by issuing a unilateral cease-fire, reportedly at the urging of his patrons in Iran who were interested in cooling down regional tensions and speeding up the U.S. withdrawal. By 2008, another factor in the declining violence was the growing awareness among Iraqis that the U.S. military's occupation indeed was coming to an end. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki insisted on -- and got -- a firm timetable for American withdrawal from Bush.
Even author Bob Woodward, who had published best-sellers that praised Bush's early war judgments, concluded that the "surge" was only one factor and possibly not even a major one in the declining violence. In his book, The War Within, Woodward wrote, "In Washington, conventional wisdom translated these events into a simple view: The surge had worked. But the full story was more complicated. At least three other factors were as important as, or even more important than, the surge."
Woodward, whose book drew heavily from Pentagon insiders, listed the Sunni rejection of al-Qaeda extremists in Anbar province and the surprise decision of al-Sadr to order a cease-fire as two important factors. A third factor, which Woodward argued may have been the most significant, was the use of new highly classified U.S. intelligence tactics that allowed for rapid targeting and killing of insurgent leaders.
However, in Washington, where the neocons remain very influential, the myth grew that Bush's "surge" had brought the violence under control. Gen. David Petraeus, who took command of Iraq after Bush yanked Casey and Abizaid, was elevated into hero status as the military genius who achieved "victory at last" in Iraq (as Newsweek declared).
Even the inconvenient truth that the United States was unceremoniously ushered out of Iraq in 2011 -- and that the mammoth U.S. embassy that was supposed to be the command center for Washington's imperial reach throughout the region sat mostly empty -- did not dent this cherished conventional wisdom about the "successful surge."