I have to concede, I am really quite pleased that John McCain started running his mouth about the Anbar Awakening. Before he did, the Conventional Wisdom on the Surge was so firmly established as to appear immovable. Everybody knows, the Surge worked. The fact that there is very little evidence to support that assertion really never came up. And if anyone tried to bring it up, they were scoffed at (as Obama was in the USA Today editorial above). Now that McCain has brought to the fore the fact that the Anbar Awakening, one of the most critical elements of our recent success in Iraq, was unrelated to the Surge, we can start to revisit the Conventional Wisdom.
What I think we'll find is that the real root cause for the turnaround in violence in Iraq had less to do with the additional 20,000 troops than with a change in tactics of which the Anbar Awakening was one element. The dramatic rise of David Petraeus marked the military's final grudging acceptance of the need to engage in actual counterinsurgency operations. After several disastrous years fighting the insurgency, it dawned on the Pentagon that their only real successes came where officers like Petraeus and H.R. McMaster eschewed the major operations that were up to that point the mainstay of the Iraq occupation and adopted classic counterinsurgency tactics. Hell, Petraeus wrote the book on the topic. Petraeus's ascension and this shift in tactics is what made the Anbar Awakening and the later success of the Surge possible.
This is a fairly important distinction, for a couple of reasons. First, is its obvious political impact. McCain has staked much on the fact that he supported the Surge when few others did, and the apparent success of the Surge is supposed to justify any number of prior errors of judgment with respect to Iraq (note how the USA Today article asks Obama to admit he was wrong about the surge, but it doesn't ask McCain to admit he was wrong about invading). If the Surge was not the answer, what does McCain have left to hang his hat on? Even if McCain did back counterinsurgency tactics, and it's not clear he did, that wouldn't be a terribly unique position. This humble blogger criticized the major ops approach to fighting the insurgency as far back as 2003, called for the implementation of counterinsurgency tactics in early 2004, and praised the military's movement in that direction in late 2005. Where was McCain all that time? I could have used his help back then.
Aside from the 2008 election, this debate has other long-term implications. Crediting the Surge for all that has gone right serves the right-wing's ever-popular Green Lantern Theory of Foreign Policy. According to the Green Lantern Theory ("GLT") any military failure is caused by a lack of willpower, and any military objective is achievable given a sufficient reserve of willpower. A corollary to the GLT is that any domestic criticism of either the decision to engage in a military conflict or the conduct of such conflict is a direct attack on the one resource necessary to win such a conflict (willpower) and thereby equivalent to treason. Proponents of the GLT have long scorned concepts such as nationbuilding, the exercise military restraint, respect for local culture, winning of hearts and minds, and, indeed, just about every other element of a traditional counterinsurgency operation. Not only are such things considered to be pointless, but they might weaken our resolve and are therefore deemed harmful to the cause.
Pinning all success in Iraq to the Surge is a perfect narrative fit for the GLT. Just when everyone else wanted to discuss withdrawal, George W. Bush rode the rescue with bulging reserves of willpower and not only refused to withdraw, he upped the ante as a tangible demonstration of his generous endowment of resolve. And lo, victory was achieved. If this is the narrative that comes out of the Iraq war, we will all live to regret it. The United States and Iraq alike paid a painful and bloody price to learn the lessons that the GLT proponents hope to obscure in a haze of Surge-o-philia.
In truth what we learned this time around are a lot of the lessons we should have learned from Vietnam. Indeed, Robert McNamara basically did learn those lessons. It is no coincidence that so did David Petraeus and H.R. McMaster. Petraeus wrote a doctoral thesis at Princeton titled "The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam." McMaster also wrote a doctoral thesis on the mistakes of the American military in Vietnam. The lessons were there to be learned, but few among conservative policymakers and the Pentagon brass did, enamored of the GLT as they are. Will we walk away from Iraq with the public and policymakers learning all the same wrong lessons so that the next time around we will, at terrible cost, have to rediscover the right ones all over again? I surely hope not. And I hope that McCain's gaffe will open the door to a more robust public dialogue on this topic.