The Surge: Benchmarks

On most Friday’s I busy myself during my walk to work by listening the Slategabfest” – a weekly podcast in which Slate‘s political guru John Dickerson hosts a roundtable discussion with his fellow Slate-folk: David Plotz and Emily Bazelon. To the surprise of no one, today’s discussion was dominated by The Surge articulated on Wednesday night in the President’s primetime address to the nation. Much of the conversation orbited around the question of how will we even know if the surge strategy is working?

The only thing approximating an answer to this important question came from Bazelon, who suggested that a reduction in the death count would be the only indication that the new strategy is effective. This strikes me as wrong-headed. In fact, a surge – to use the word of the moment in Washington yet again – in the death count (primarly Iraqi but certainly American as well) may be a consequence of demonstrating whether this plan is serious at all. [The alternative is voiced most shrilly by Zbigniew Brzezinski, first on the Newshour last night and again on The Washington Post opinion page today: “The commitment of 21,500 more troops is a political gimmick of limited tactical significance and of no strategic benefit. It is insufficient to win the war militarily. It will engage U.S. forces in bloody street fighting that will not resolve with finality the ongoing turmoil and the sectarian and ethnic strife, not to mention the anti-American insurgency.”]

My point is that the President’s plan depends on the will and ability of the Maliki government to take on their own, namely Sadr, his militia, and the death squads that operate under his purview and protection. Thus far the Maliki government has been incapable or unwilling to remove this cancer from the Iraqi body politic, and for obvious reasons: Sadr is a key constituency in the Maliki coalition. For this reason I am less than pessimistic about the Maliki government, which has proven itself both feckless and mendacious at every juncture since it came into being. That said, if we start to see reports of pitched battles in Sadr city between the Iraqi army (with American support – define “support” how you will) and the Sadr militia we will know that Maliki is serious. Otherwise, we can expect two things: the reign (and perhaps the life) of Maliki will be short-lived, and the cry from Congress will grow more deafening.

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2 Comments on “The Surge: Benchmarks”

  1. Dan Goldman Says:

    Zbigniew Brzezinski might be shrill, but he’s not wrong. The number of troops, the very idea of a surge, the mealy-mouthed defense of it all during the speech on Wednesday all indicate to me that this is a strategy born out of political necessity and compromise with the Joint Chiefs and others, not a real path towards victory.

    I think it’s ironic that this might be the first time in this Bush administration’s history that he’s agreed to compromise and it’s going to fall flat. Perhaps if our feckless Commander-in-Chief had been willing to listen to some of his loyal opposition in the post-9/11 era, we wouldn’t be in this position today.

    For my money, the ideal solution at this point lies in withdrawing U.S. troops to northern Iraq and patrolling the borders, etc. Seems to me, Bush, Cheney and Kristol, et. al. are fixing for a fight with Iran at this point anyways.

  2. Evan Says:

    Good to hear from you Dan. I do not necessarily disagree with the thrust of your comment at all (though I can think of more probable explanation for the “Surge” strategy than your assertion that it represents a compromise with the Joint Chiefs. The implication being that Bush does not himself fully believe what he is saying. I think such an analysis is wrong. Bush was handed political cover to ratchet down the misadventure in Iraq in the form of the ISG report. Instead, he cast-off their recommendations and went in the opposite direction. Political expediency is not the issue here. Call Bush what you will (and I can think of some choice adjectives) but his policy in fact runs counter to political expeidency, which is why you will start seeing more and more defections on Capitol Hill. But I digress…)

    Brzezinski is shrill, but he is also fucking smart, and his read of it sounds a hell of a lot more plausible than a belief that this insignificant surge of troops and alteration of tactics will put the lid back on Pandora’s box. And though some of us who supported the move to topple Saddam by force must take an unflinching look at the bloody morass we currently face and ruthlessly interrogate our political presumptions, I am less than optimistic that the “loyal opposition” offered an effective alternative.

    Your ideal solution will probably be the next step once this sham fails, though hopefully hot conflict with Iran and Syria is not part of it. That would be disastrous and, in Tehran at least, would most likely solidify the power of all the most illiberal elements of Iranian politics.


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