As America marks the first anniversary of the troop escalation in Iraq, at least one thing has become clear. Although the “surge” is failing as policy, it seems to be succeeding as propaganda. Even as George W. Bush continues to bump and scrape along the bottom of public approval, significantly more people now believe that we are “winning” the war.
What winning really means and whether that vague impression can be sustained are questions that the war’s proponents would prefer not to answer for the moment. Their objective during this election year is simply to reduce public pressure for withdrawal, which is still the choice of an overwhelming majority of voters.
So long as the surge appears to be working, political space is created for the Republican candidates who support the war—especially Senator John McCain, the hawk’s hawk, who said recently that he might keep U.S. soldiers in Iraq for “a hundred years.” Although that remark was not well received in the Arab world, they may have taken comfort in the fact that no matter how determined the Arizona senator is to carry out that threat, he is unlikely to do so since he is already over 70 years old.
But the revival of Mr. McCain’s moribund candidacy over the past few weeks would have been impossible without the media’s endorsement of “progress” in Iraq. Indeed, war propaganda itself has surged lately on the strength of casualty statistics from December 2007. Consider the work of William Kristol, the indefatigable publicist who played an important role in selling the war as editor of The Weekly Standard and on the Fox News Channel. From his new perch on The New York Times’ Op-Ed page—which proves that being hideously wrong is no obstacle to scaling the heights of American punditry—he proclaims that “we have been able to turn around the situation in Iraq” and achieved “real success.”
According to Mr. Kristol, who once mocked concerns about religious strife in Iraq as “pop sociology,” the drop in violence last month may have marked the lowest overall number of deaths for both civilians and military forces since the war began, in March 2003. Declining casualties for a month or two means progress, which in turn means that the war must continue, and that the president’s policy is correct.
What has fallen far more sharply than the casualty statistics in Iraq is the standard for success there, as defined by neoconservatives like Mr. Kristol. In the original promotional literature produced by them and their associates, and recited by the president, this war was supposed to remake the Middle East into a showcase for democracy, with ruinous consequences for our terrorist enemies, cheaper oil for us—and all for free because the Iraqi petroleum industry would cover all the costs.
When that happy future never arrived, to put it very mildly, the war’s proponents scrambled to reduce expectations. So when the president announced the surge, he set forth a series of benchmarks for progress in Iraq that were supposed to result from our increased troop presence. The objective was not a temporary reduction of sectarian killing but real movement toward reconciliation of the contending factions, including the passage of laws on sharing oil revenues and political power among the Sunni, Shia, Kurdish and other communities. President Bush declared that the escalation would create space for the Iraqis to act on behalf of their own country.
Even those minimized objectives have yet to be met. The oil-sharing statute is stalled in the Iraqi parliament while Kurdish regional authorities make their own separate deals with foreign oil companies. The Sunni militia organizations that we have armed to fight Al Qaeda have been rejected by the Shia central government. The statute passed by the Iraqi parliament last week to reduce sanctions against former members of the Ba’ath Party, which was supposed to mollify the Sunni leadership, appears only to have alienated them further because they consider it fraudulent.
Worst of all, despite the undoubted courage and commitment of our troops, the level of violence in Iraq has increased since the new year began. Killings of civilians by car bombs and snipers averaged more than 50 per day during the first two weeks of January, and U.S. military deaths are averaging slightly more than one per day, or nearly 50 percent higher than last month.
At that level, if American troops stayed for another 10 years, let alone a century as Mr. McCain suggests, our casualties would double. What would winning mean then?