The Rising Cost of the Iraq 'Surge'
September 9, 2008
Since Jan. 10, 2007, when George W. Bush announced his troop “surge,” more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers have died in the Iraq War – about a quarter of the total war dead – but now an even higher cost may loom ahead, the indefinite continuation of the conflict under President John McCain.
Despite strong evidence to the contrary, it has become established conventional wisdom among mainstream Washington journalists that the “surge” was the singular reason for the recent decline in Iraq’s violence. It’s also agreed that McCain deserves great credit for pushing the “surge” idea early.
Barack Obama has been repeatedly chastised – even badgered – for opposing the “surge.” His attempts to refocus the debate more broadly on the wisdom of invading Iraq in the first place are rudely rejected by Big Media interviewers.
The latest example came during an ABC News “This Week” interview on Sept. 7 when George Stephanopoulos demanded of Obama: “How do you escape the logic that … John McCain was right about the surge?”
When Obama responded that he didn’t understand “why people are so focused on what has happened in the last year and a half and not on the previous five,” Stephanopoulos cut him off, saying “Granted, you think you made the right decision about going in, but about the surge?”
In other words, the big-name journalists don’t want a discussion about the decision to illegally invade Iraq under false pretenses in 2003 (presumably because they almost all were cheering the invasion on), but instead they want the debate to center entirely on their latest false assumption, that the “surge” has virtually won the war.
In reality, the “surge” of about 30,000 additional troops sent to Iraq appears to have been only one factor and – according to military officials interviewed for Bob Woodward’s new book, The War Within – possibly a secondary one in explaining the drop-off in the violence that had made Iraq a living hell.
As Woodward writes, “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 draws heavily from Pentagon insiders, reported that the Sunni rejection of al-Qaeda extremists in Anbar province (which preceded the surge) and the surprise decision of radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr to order a unilateral cease-fire by his militia were 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. Woodward agreed to withhold details of these secret techniques from his book so as not to undercut their continuing success.
But there have been previous glimpses of classified U.S. programs that combine high-tech means of identifying insurgents – such as sophisticated biometrics and night-vision-equipped drones – with old-fashioned brutality on the ground, including on-the-spot executions of suspects. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s Global Dirty War” and “Iraq’s Laboratory of Repression.”]
As we’ve reported previously, other brutal factors – that the Washington press corps almost never mentions – help explain the decline in violence:
--Vicious ethnic cleansing has succeeded in separating Sunnis and Shiites to such a degree that there are fewer targets to kill. Several million Iraqis are estimated to be refugees either in neighboring countries or within their own.
--Concrete walls built between Sunni and Shiite areas have made “death-squad” raids more difficult but also have “cantonized” much of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, making everyday life for Iraqis even more exhausting as they seek food or travel to work.
--During the “surge,” U.S. forces expanded a policy of rounding up so-called “military age males” and locking up tens of thousands in prison.
--Awesome U.S. firepower, concentrated on Iraqi insurgents and civilian bystanders for more than five years, has slaughtered countless thousands of Iraqis and has intimidated many others to look simply to their own survival.
--With the total Iraqi death toll estimated in the hundreds of thousands and many more Iraqis horribly maimed, the society has been deeply traumatized. As tyrants have learned throughout history, at some point violent repression does work.
But this dark side of the “successful surge” is excluded from the U.S. political debate. As during the pre-invasion period, the Washington press corps acts more like Bush’s propagandists than anything close to skeptical journalists.
The only time they get tough in interviews is with Obama, demanding that he get in line with the rest of Washington’s conventional wisdom and hail the media’s old favorite, John McCain, for his courage and wisdom.
In playing this role, the U.S. press is again playing into Bush’s hands and his desire to make sure that outright defeat in Iraq won’t occur on his watch – and that he will leave behind a successor who is committed to the neoconservative strategy of open-ended warfare against Muslim militants.
That is what appears increasingly likely as McCain surges up to – and in some polls moves decisively ahead of – Obama.
As Woodward’s book makes clear, Bush always understood the importance of controlling American perceptions about the Iraq War, even when that required lying to the public.
Not only did Bush insist in 2006 that the war was being won when he knew differently – and he said he was listening to his commanders when, in reality, he was overruling their judgments – he talked privately about the need to control the Iraq War images to influence the voters back home.
“The U.S. presence helps to keep the lid on,” Bush told the top regional commander, Gen. John Abizaid, in explaining the reasoning for a troop buildup, and “also helps here at home, since for many the measure of success is reduction in violence.” [Washington Post, Sept. 8, 2008]
In that assessment, Bush was politically prescient.
When the catastrophic levels of violence finally declined to the simply terrible, Bush’s partisans – especially the many well-placed neoconservative opinion leaders – began baiting anyone who had doubted the “surge,” much as they had hectored anyone who doubted the wisdom of invading Iraq in 2003.
The conventional wisdom about the “successful surge” has transformed Campaign 2008, throwing Obama onto the defensive in interview after interview, while virtually no journalist presses McCain about his judgment to make a rapid pivot out of Afghanistan in early 2002 toward Iraq.
Arguably, McCain’s advocacy for this premature pivot – while Afghanistan was still in a fragile state and top al-Qaeda leaders were finding new safe haven in northwest Pakistan – was the biggest strategic blunder in modern American military history.
It has locked the United States into two open-ended wars with costs likely to soar into the trillions of dollars, while the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorates and nuclear-armed Pakistan slides toward instability.
But the political commentators place none of the blame on John McCain.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, the supposedly “successful surge” apparently does not mean the United States can withdraw significant numbers of troops in the foreseeable future. President Bush has decided to leave U.S. troop levels in Iraq at about where they are now.
That means the number of American soldiers on the ground in Iraq at the end of January 2009 may well be about the same – or even slightly higher – than when the “surge” was announced two years earlier.
However, the likeliest long-term outcome for the United States in Iraq appears to be that eventually the U.S. occupation forces will be told to leave by an increasingly nationalistic Iraqi government, a kind of thanks for all the help but don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
The odds then would be that any post-U.S.-occupied Iraq would remain divided by bitter sectarianism as the country has been for centuries and that any democratic institutions would be fragile at best. The likeliest regional winner would be Iran, which has seen its Shiite allies gain the upper hand over the old Sunni power structure.
A possible alternative outcome, of course, would be a unilateral decision by Washington to refuse to leave.
That may be what the victorious neoconservatives in a McCain administration would want, but that would come at an even higher price in blood and treasure. It also would mean that the few remnants of the old American Republic would be wiped away by the arrival of a new American Empire.
Yet, the U.S. news media, which mostly has cheered on the Iraq War from its “shock and awe” beginning through today’s “successful surge,” has no time to assess the future cost of the Iraq War in lives, money and American principles. That staggering price tag is simply not in the media's frame of reference.
Instead, it’s all about hailing McCain and bashing Obama.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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