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Reprinted from Consortium News
As American politicians and editorial writers resume their tough talk about sending more U.S. troops into Iraq, they are resurrecting the "successful surge" myth, the claim that President George W. Bush's dispatch of 30,000 more soldiers in 2007 somehow "won" the war -- a storyline that is beloved by the neocons because it somewhat lets them off the hook for starting the disaster in the first place.
But just because Official Washington embraces a narrative doesn't make it true. Bush's "surge" was, in reality, a dismal -- an unconscionable -- failure. It did not achieve its ostensible aim -- the rationale Bush eventually decided to give it -- namely, to buy time for Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites to reconcile.
In one very important sense, however, the "surge" into Iraq was wildly successful in achieving what was almost certainly its primary aim. It bought President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney a "decent interval" so they could leave office without an explicit military defeat sullying their legacy -- and for the "acceptable" price of "only" 1,000 more U.S. dead.
At the time there were other options -- and indeed many of the "achievements" credited to the "surge" had already happened or at least had begun. The hyper-violent Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in June 2006; ethnic cleansing was separating Sunni and Shiite communities; and the Sunni Awakening -- the buying off of some tribal leaders -- was being implemented.
Yet, by fall 2006 it also was unavoidably clear that a new course had to be chosen and implemented in Iraq, and virtually every sober thinker seemed opposed to sending more troops. The senior military, especially CENTCOM commander Gen. John Abizaid and his man on the ground in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, emphasized that sending still more U.S. troops to Iraq would simply reassure leading Iraqi politicians that they could relax and continue to take forever to get their act together.
Here, for example, is Gen. Abizaid's answer at the Senate Armed Services Committee on Nov. 15, 2006, to Sen. John McCain, who had long been pressing vigorously for sending 20,000 more troops to Iraq:
"Senator McCain, I met with every divisional commander, General Casey, the corps commander, General Dempsey, we all talked together. And I said, 'in your professional opinion, if we were to bring in more American troops now, does it add considerably to our ability to achieve success in Iraq?' And they all said no. And the reason is because we want the Iraqis to do more. It is easy for the Iraqis to rely upon us do this work. I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future."
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, sent a classified cable to Washington warning that "proposals to send more U.S. forces to Iraq would not produce a long-term solution and would make our policy less, not more, sustainable," according to a New York Times retrospective on the "surge" by Michael R. Gordon published on Aug. 31, 2008. Khalilzad was arguing, unsuccessfully, for authority to negotiate a political solution with the Iraqis.
There was also the establishment-heavy Iraq Study Group, created by Congress and led by Republican stalwart James Baker and Democrat Lee Hamilton. After months of policy review during 2006 -- with former CIA Director Robert Gates as a member -- it issued a final report on Dec. 6, 2006, that began with the ominous sentence "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating."
It called for: "A change in the primary mission of U.S. Forces in Iraq that will enable the United States to begin to move its combat forces out of Iraq responsibly... By the first quarter of 2008 ... all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq." Though a member of the Iraq Study Group, Gates quietly disassociated himself from its findings when Bush was dangling the position of Defense Secretary in front of the always ambitious Gates. After Nov. 8, 2006 when Bush announced Gates's nomination, Gates quit the ISG.
Gates would do what he needed to do to become secretary of defense. At his confirmation hearing on Dec. 5, he obscured his opinions by telling the Senate Armed Services only "all options are on the table in terms of Iraq." The Democrats, including then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, swooned over Gates's supposed thoughtfulness and wisdom.
Many Democrats assumed that Gates would help persuade Bush to implement the ISG's plan for a troop drawdown, but they were in for a surprise. With unanimous Democratic support and only two conservative Republicans opposed, Gates was confirmed by the full Senate on Dec. 6, the same day the ISG report was formally released. But the Democrats and much of the mainstream media had completely misread the behind-the-scenes story.
Gates to the Rescue
The little-understood reality behind Bush's decision to catapult Robert Gates into his Pentagon perch was the astonishing fact that previous Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, of all people, was pulling a Robert McNamara; he was going wobbly on a war based largely on his own hubris-laden, misguided advice. In the fall of 2006 Rumsfeld was having a reality attack. In Rumsfeld-speak, he came face to face with a "known known."
On Nov. 6, 2006, a day before the mid-term elections, Rumsfeld sent a memo to the White House, in which he acknowledged, "Clearly, what U.S. forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough."
The rest of his memo sounded very much like the emerging troop-drawdown conclusions of the Iraq Study Group. The first 80 percent of Rumsfeld's memo addressed "Illustrative Options," including his preferred -- or "above the line" -- options such as "an accelerated drawdown of U.S. bases " to five by July 2007" and withdrawal of U.S. forces "from vulnerable positions -- cities, patrolling, etc. ... so the Iraqis know they have to pull up their socks, step up and take responsibility for their country."