The history of post Cold War US involvement in Iraq is the story of the enduring power of myths to drive a false foreign policy narrative and achieve the goals of a singularly-focused pressure group (the interventionist neocons). From the 1990 myth that Saddam Hussein had on his own and in opposition to stated US wishes made a land grab in Kuwait, the myth that Iraqi troops were poised to invade Saudi Arabia, the 2003 myth that Saddam had, “in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons,” to the myth that the invasion of Iraq would be a “cakewalk,” to the myth that the US attack on Iraq would bring the Iraqi people “hope and progress.”
But perhaps one of the most enduring myths of all, endlessly reinforced by the media, has been that after the disastrous aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a few brilliant military philosophers in the Pentagon came up with a “surge” in tandem with a new “counterinsurgency doctrine” that snatched victory in Iraq from the jaws of a horrible, scorched earth defeat.
The “Surge” of some 20,000 additional American troops along with the cancellation of out-rotations of many others is said to have been responsible for an end to – or at least a great reduction in – the almost unimaginable levels of violence in Iraq, both among Iraqis and toward the US occupying army. In the words of then-President George W. Bush, the purpose of the surge was “to help Iraqis clear and secure neighborhoods, to help them protect the local population, and to help ensure that the Iraqi forces left behind are capable of providing the security.”
In fact none of those goals was reached. Zero.
While it is true that violence temporarily dissipated after the “surge,” one cannot automatically argue a case for causation. In fact, as Patrick Cockburn observed, one major reason for the decrease in violence circa 2007-2008 was that the wave of sectarian violence had by then largely played itself out. In other words, with ethnic cleansing complete, there was just very little left to kill. Also, as we now know, the Surge “victory” was in fact just the calm before the storm. Emerging out of the chaos produced by the US attack on Iraq was al-Qaeda and then its breakaway, ISIS.
Popular conservative mythology is that the “Surge” of General David Petraeus and Gen. Raymond T. Odierno saved Iraq, only to have President Obama lose it again with his timidity and fecklessness. The truth is the surge produced nothing of lasting value, it only delayed the inevitable collapse and blowback set in motion in March 2002 with the US invasion. Even if the US occupation force had been able to remain in Iraq (it could not, because President Bush could not negotiate an acceptable status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government), the rise of al-Qaeda and ISIS would not have been prevented. The only difference if the US military had stayed is that more US soldiers would have been killed and maimed.
As with all myths, however, they take on a life of their own and seldom die under the weight of their own contradictions. That is certainly the case with the “Surge.” In fact, Gen. Odierno, mentioned above and considered a co-architect of the Surge, was in Washington this week to argue for another, even more massive “surge.” Speaking to a conference put on by the neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), the former Army chief of staff Odierno said what is needed to defeat ISIS and save the region is a massive 50,000 strong force, led by the US but not entirely made up of US troops.
There is no question that the neocons in the room, whose lavish sinecures come to them courtesy of the military-industrial complex, were hyperventilating in anticipation of another major US invasion of Iraq (and Syria). War is the greatest DC jobs program and the hits just keep coming.
But Odierno’s brain is a hammer and he only sees nails. He is wrong again. It wasn’t a lack of massive overwhelming force that “lost” Iraq, but rather it was a strategy that could only ever deliver a US defeat. Destroying other functioning societies and then in a breathtaking act of hubris expecting to remake them in one’s own image is a plan sure to fail. There are no numbers of soldiers who can achieve such a fool’s errand. The only thing that can happen is that many of them are needlessly killed in the process – something general officers used to care about, before making political statements and basking in the praise of the neoconservative armchair warriors became the order of the day.
General Odierno must sense that his Surge was not all it was cracked up to be. Looking at the fruits of his labor in Iraq he no doubt does not see Switzerland, but Swaziland. So he does what all politicians in Washington do when their grand plans meet stark reality: he blames someone else. This time it’s the Iranians. It’s all their fault, he tells the FDD crowd.
Though he once supported a unified Iraq, Odierno now finds that:
[I]t’s becoming harder and harder to have a unified Iraq. And the reason is I believe the influence of Iran inside of Iraq is so great, they will never allow the Sunnis to participate in a meaningful way in the government. If that doesn’t happen, you cannot have a unified Iraq.
So he had no idea that a majority Shia country next-door to Iran with historic ties to Iran, with a segment of the population that had spent time in Iran, would elect an Iran-friendly Shia government and make a strategic shift toward Iran once a popular vote was held after the destruction caused by the US invasion (and continued US hostility to Iran)? It was shocking to General Odierno that a thoroughly US-bombed Iraq, where the economy and social structures had been obliterated and sectarian fault lines had been exploded would not, in the words of Dick Cheney, welcome us as liberators?
If there were ever an argument for military officers to keep clear from politics this is it.
Odierno’s speech to the FDD neocons captures the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of Washington’s foreign policy. He got it completely wrong back when he was in charge of things in Iraq and he gets it completely wrong when he tells us that we need to go back in, with less troops this time and less time to get the job done (no one is going to agree to another eight or so years). What does he get for being wrong on both counts? An adoring audience of neocons and plenty of coverage in venues like Fox News. For a blessed while it was considered unfashionable to praise the Iraq war, but as time seemingly accelerates the same people who botched Iraq – like General Odierno – are let loose from their asylums to again screech “let loose the dogs of war!” And the worst part is that all of a sudden people no longer laugh.
Daniel McAdams is director of the The Ron Paul Institute for Peace & Prosperity. Reprinted from The Ron Paul Institute for Peace & Prosperity.