Is the Surge Working?

A couple of scholars say yes, despite their criticism of the Bush administration.


Yes, comes the answer from Brookings Institution scholars Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, in yesterday's New York Times. They write, after an eight-day trip to Iraq, with careful qualifications and with some stinging criticism of the Bush administration (perhaps to reassure readers that it really is the Times they're reading). Here is one key passage:

We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms. As two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration's miserable handling of Iraq, we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily "victory" but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with.

Their conclusion:

How much longer should American troops keep fighting and dying to build a new Iraq while Iraqi leaders fail to do their part? And how much longer can we wear down our forces in this mission? These haunting questions underscore the reality that the surge cannot go on forever. But there is enough good happening on the battlefields of Iraq today that Congress should plan on sustaining the effort at least into 2008.

O'Hanlon specializes in military affairs; Pollack is an expert on Iraq and Iran. Both are Democrats; Pollack served on the national security adviser's staff in the Clinton administration. Both are first-class scholars whom I have long respected, though they differ from me in significant respects on foreign policy. For other comments on their article, see this symposium in National Review Online.

Their argument is one many Democrats in Congress don't want to hear. Literally. This is the transcript of the response of freshman Rep. Nancy Boyda of Kansas at a House Armed Services Committee hearing last Friday to the optimistic testimony of Gen. Jack Keane, one of the original advocates of the surge:

And I just will make some statements more for the record based on what I heard from—mainly from General Keane. As many of us—there was only so much that you could take until we in fact had to leave the room for a while. So I think I am back and maybe can articulate some things—after so much of the frustration of having to listen to what we listened to.

But let me first just say that the description of Iraq as in some way or another that it's a place that I might take the family for a vacation—things are going so well—those kinds of comments will in fact show up in the media and further divide this country instead of saying, here's the reality of the problem. And people, we have to come together and deal with the reality of this issue.

Read that last sentence again. "And people, we have to come together and deal with the reality of this issue." The reality, that is, of how she sees it. Which is, apparently, that Iraq is a totally lost cause. She can't bear to hear anyone say anything otherwise.

But one thing students of the history of war know is that things can change in war. And apparently they've been changing in Iraq, at least in the opinions of Michael O'Hanlon, Kenneth Pollack, and Gen. Jack Keane. Democrats like Boyda would like to preserve in amber the state of public opinion that prevailed during the 2006 election and for the first half of this year that we have been defeated in Iraq. The more cynical among them want to make political gain from that; the less cynical want to end a conflict that is taking American lives as fast as they can.

But there is evidence—just a little evidence so far—that opinion may be changing. The New York Times and CBS took a poll and found that support for going to war in Iraq had risen to 42 percent from 35 percent from May to July. The percentage of those thinking it was the wrong decision fell to 54 percent from 61 percent. This was a statistically significant difference and indicated a very different political balance. Not many politicians want to get on the wrong side of a 35-61 split. But many politicians are willing to take the risk of getting on the wrong side of a 42-54 split. The former means that opinion is running negative in just about every state and district. The latter means that opinion is running about 50-50 in states and districts somewhat more Republican than average. Which is many, many states and districts.

Using the 2004 election results as a gauge of what states and districts are more Republican than average (though not of current opinion today, which is different from what it was in November 2004), you find that very many are: George W. Bush carried the 50 states by a 31-19 margin and carried the 435 congressional districts by a 255-180 margin.

The Times and CBS News didn't believe the 42-54 result, for the good reason that the poll didn't show movement on opinion on Iraq and for (I suspect) the bad reason that they couldn't imagine there could be any rise in the percentage favoring the policies of Bushchimphitler. So they took another poll—an unusual step, because it costs money to take polls, and news organizations, particularly those with declining audiences like the Times and CBS, have limited budgets. Presumably they expected to get a different result. But they got pretty much the same numbers.

Interesting. We'll be able to see if there are similar shifts in other polls. Maybe there will be; maybe there won't. The nightmare scenario for Democrats is that increasing numbers of Americans will see progress in Iraq and will not want to accept defeat when they could have victory. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, according to the Washington Post's Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza, is already having such a nightmare. He said that a positive report by Gen. David Petraeus in September will be "a real big problem for us":

Clyburn noted that Petraeus carries significant weight among the 47 members of the Blue Dog caucus in the House, a group of moderate to conservative Democrats. Without their support, he said, Democratic leaders would find it virtually impossible to pass legislation setting a timetable for withdrawal.

The "us" in question is of course the House Democratic leadership. A political party gets itself in a bad position when military success for the nation is a "real big problem for us." Voters generally want their politicians to root for the nation, not against it. We're still a good distance from this nightmare scenario for congressional Democrats, and we may never get there. But it seems that Jim Clyburn, a highly competent politician and from everything I've seen a really nice man, is worried about it.

Finally, read this interview by radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt of John F. Burns, the New York Times's chief correspondent in Iraq. Burns is a superb reporter, probably one of the best war reporters of all time, and his analysis is absolutely fascinating. And if you haven't already, take a look at the reader-supported reporting of Michael Yon and Michael Totten.