In virtually all the ways it was intended to, the Iraq surge has worked. That is to say, it’s shifted the focus in American politics away from the gaping flaws in the messianic American reflex to remake the Arab Muslim world into its own image and onto crisply technocratic matters of timing and modulation.
The joint testimony of Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker before Congress this week has pointed all media compasses in the same reassuring direction, with recitations of steady progress on the ground in Baghdad and Anbar province, with more of the same surely to come—with the just the right number of U.S. troops on the ground at any given moment.
This most vital propaganda arm of the surge is largely the handiwork of former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, Karl Rove’s successor as special political adviser to President Bush. This weekend, The Washington Post reported that under Mr. Gillespie’s direction, the White House had assembled “a rapid-response P.R. unit hardwired into Petraeus’s shop.”
Mr. Gillespie coordinated two daily conference calls with other administrators in the executive branch and the Pentagon touting surge progress to the press. A 5,000-member e-mail blast list, meanwhile, furnished “talking points or rebuttals of criticism, covering 94 points of media interpretation under the headings ‘Myth/Facts’ or ‘Setting the Record Straight to take issue with negative news articles,’ and ‘In Case You Missed It’ to distribute positive articles and speeches.”
For all the loving attention paid to impression management, the overall strategic plan for the actual operation remains grievously myopic. Take the proudest achievement thus far of the latest redeployment, the third “surge” proper in the Iraq conflict: the newly stable Sunni-dominated Anbar province. One of General Petraeus’ main advisers on the surge, retired Australian Lt. Col. David Kilcullen, notes that the surge had little to do with the Sunni turnaround in Anbar. “Kilcullen said that it wasn’t the surge that got this done,” said Larry C. Johnson, a Washington-based terrorism consultant. “It was the Saudis and the Jordanians working behind the scenes with the Sunnis, together with some U.S. intelligence efforts, people saying, ‘We’ll arm you and we’ll pay you’” to Sunni tribal leaders contemplating a break with the Al Qaeda and Iraq leaders in Anbar. In other words, operations that are based in incentives other than military operations—and even then, Mr. Johnson noted, the Anbar turnaround “doesn’t address the issue of whether these Sunni tribes are going to be willing to integrate themselves into the broader government and its aims.”
That government is, of course, Shia-dominated, and weak. Under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, it has met just three of the 18 benchmarks designated as signs of meaningful progress in Iraq, according to a report earlier this month from the nonpartisan General Accounting Office.
And viewed with the sober, colder eye of past imperial strategies, the provisional gains under the latest troop surge look still more ephemeral. Douglas Porch, a military historian at the Naval War College in Monterey, Calif., likens the present political landscape in Iraq to “the question of indirect rule in the British empire.”
“They were doing then the same thing we’re engaged in now: the effort to create some sort of empire that gets foreign peoples to accept your values,” Mr. Porch said. Under that vision, British military leaders developed a system of “rule through native elites”—Hindu caste leaders under the Raj who “make sure that everything runs smoothly, since they know the society far better than you do.”
One of the problems with that game plan, Mr. Porch said, is that it “relied on the idealized version of British society.”