The Urge to ‘Surge’

In my column on the Iraq Study Group, I neglected to mention the most objectionable aspect of the Baker-Hamilton report [.pdf], and that is the suggestion that it might be a good idea to inject a “surge” of U.S. troops to secure Baghdad and stabilize a regime that seems about to fall. The ISG averred that, although they rejected proposals to double U.S. forces,

“We could, however, support a short-term redeployment or surge of American combat forces to stabilize Baghdad, or to speed up the training and equipping mission, if the U.S. commander in Iraq determines that such steps would be effective.”

The key part of that sentence is in the last phrase. The Los Angeles Times reports on the state of the internal debate:

“A troop increase has been opposed by Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, but it has been embraced by a growing number of military advisers inside and outside the Pentagon, several of whom have pressed the case to Bush in recent weeks.

“That group may be joined today by retired Army Gen. John Keane, an influential former vice chief of staff who met with Bush earlier in the week. Keane is to appear at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, to present a plan for a troop increase that was developed by think tank military analyst Frederick W. Kagan.”

Translation: The uniformed military are against the “surge” concept, but the civilians in the Pentagon and over at Neocon Central now have a retired general on their side. There are voices, however, arguing for a different approach, as the New York Times informs us:

“The general in day-to-day command of United States troops in Iraq made an impassioned appeal on Tuesday for more time and money to make the American enterprise here work. He suggested that he did not favor a surge in American troop numbers, but rather a new effort to weaken the insurgency by creating jobs for what he called Iraq’s ‘angry young men.'”

If that happens, then George W. Bush will complete his metamorphosis into another Texan in the White House who had to deal with an unpopular war: Lyndon Baines Johnson. We’ll have “jobs programs” – and, no doubt, “poverty pimps” (remember them?) – for all those who survive the Shi’ite death squads and the daily American bombardment. We’ll set up an Iraqi Office of Economic Opportunity, and hand out subsidies – oh, wait, didn’t we already do that?

It would be a logical evolution for this president, who has, after all, gone from building the Ownership Society to resurrecting the Great Society, at home and abroad. From a pledge to reduce the size and scope of government to the biggest expansion of federal power since the first two hundred days of Franklin Roosevelt‘s first term, from a “a more humble” foreign policy to the doctrine of military preemption and a “global democratic revolution” – George W. Bush, it turns out, is a Bizarro Republican, a president who has deftly managed to invert the traditional GOP agenda. What’s more, he’s learned to make the right wing love it, thereby hastening their transformation into Bizarro conservatives.

The “angry young men” of 1960s urban America were neither appeased nor bought off: all these years later, they fill America’s prisons, and their children are even angrier. The Iraqis will prove no different, yet I suppose one could argue that a “jobs program” is better than a “surge.” The problem is that we’ll probably get both. The Los Angeles Times reports that the “surge” strategy includes the following:

“The approach overlaps somewhat a course promoted by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). But the Pentagon proposals add several features, including the confrontation with Sadr, a possible renewed offensive in the Sunni stronghold of al-Anbar province, a large Iraqi jobs program, and a proposal for a long-term increase in the size of the military.”

President Johnson, you’ll remember, launched his War on Poverty in tandem with escalating the Vietnam War, and the political rhetoric and objectives of these losing campaigns were remarkably similar. Both were pacification programs, and they failed in Vietnam, as well as in South Central Los Angeles. Iraq is hardly more welcoming terrain for our soldiers – will it be any different for our social engineers?

In making his remarks for an economics-oriented approach, as reported in the New York Times, Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, said to be the leading candidate to succeed Gen. Casey as top U.S. commander in Iraq, wasn’t making a political point so much as expressing outright despair over the predicament in which we now find ourselves. He was also reacting to questions about the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton commission, specifically the 2008 deadline:

“It’s going to take however long it’s going to take. And I can’t tell you whether there’s time. But I don’t like any of the alternatives I’ve seen. I just don’t like them.”

He means the “surge” option, supported by National Security Adviser Steven J. Hadley and conditionally endorsed by Baker-Hamilton. There’s also the “long surge” advocated by ultra-neocons like Thomas Donnelly, who warns against “surge and run.” Chiarelli’s approach is one perfectly suited to a Democratic Congress:

“There are a lot of people who say, ‘If we just go down and kill and capture them everything will be O.K.’ – sure there are people who feel that way. And I’m not saying that every insurgent is going to take a job making 55-gallon drums. But my point is, do you try and reintegrate them into society, or do you just believe that everybody around here wants to have a gun and wants to go out every day playing Russian roulette on whether or not they’re going to be killed by the coalition?”

The great problem with this approach is that our troops, too, go out every day with a gun and play Russian roulette, only they are doing it thousands of miles from home. As an alternative to withdrawal, launching a War on Poverty in Iraq may win plaudits in Congress, and even in The Nation, but it is just another form of imperialism – one that is doomed to fail, but in the meantime will cost American taxpayers a pretty penny.

Lyndon Baines Bush is reportedly going to ask for $100 billion more to pay for his war – and Gen. Chiarelli wants more of it spent on agriculture. We are back in the Sixties again, and soon enough we’ll be hearing retro phrases like “guns and butter.” Guns are hard, steely, and strictly business: no wonder Republicans seem to like them so much. On the other hand, butter is, well, buttery, and soft, like your typical Democrat.

Two styles of imperialism, competing visions of what an American empire could and must be: there is no real dissent, however, except around the margins, when it comes to whether we can or should be an empire. It’s too late for that, say the Washington policy wonks, who have a special perspective due to their residence in the Imperial City. What are you, one of those dreaded “isolationists“? We already are an empire. The only question now, they say, is whether we’re going to be good at the empire game, like the British, or will we go rampaging about like an American bull in a Middle Eastern china shop.

This view, held by many Democrats – the overwhelming majority of Democrats in Congress – is seemingly more benevolent, in that it is less overtly militaristic. But don’t be fooled. There is no “smart” way to run an empire: in the end, it runs you. And then it ruins you. The smart thing to do is to refrain from acquiring an empire, and, if one seems about to acquire you, then the really smart strategy is to run, not walk, away from it.

We are learning just how costly imperial ambitions can be: empires, after all, don’t come cheap. And then there are the nonmaterial costs: the corruption of politics and of the spirit. Constant war means a degradation of the national psyche: it means a martial spirit, a fear of dissent, and an unhealthy and un-American harping on the saintly intentions and unquestionable legitimacy of government officials and institutions. It means the economic and political empowerment of a rising class of administrators, policy “advisers” on government contracts, and their numerous progeny and hangers-on. It means, in short, a whole new species of tax-eaters – a made-to-order political constituency for one of the two major parties.

Foreign policy is all about domestic politics, about feeding political constituencies and bringing home the bacon to the military contractors. Our guns are their butter. The two “major” parties are competing over how to distribute that butter and to whom: nobody wants to abolish the gravy train, however. Their only quarrel is over who gets a bigger portion.

My point is that the political dynamics here in America give life to the empire-building impulse, in spite of the growing national distaste for foreign wars. In a democracy, a small but determined minority can easily subvert the will of the majority by intensive lobbying and generous subsidies to the compliant. That’s why no major political figure embraces the majority antiwar view in this country: there’s no money in it.

And that’s why the news that two-thirds of the American people reject interventionism does little to alleviate my essential pessimism. Perhaps it is a matter of personal temperament, but I just don’t see how we can break through the political blockade of special interests and the two-party monopoly without some fundamental political reforms. Our entire system is biased in favor of meddling in the affairs of other nations, and so are the interests of the political class. Until we solve this systemic problem, we are going to be fighting a constant uphill battle to rein in the American colossus.

Both parties have a political interest in maintaining the fictions of American supremacy and our alleged ability to transform entire societies by an adroit application of resources. It can’t be done. Real conservatives used to know this, and some are beginning to relearn it. What I fear is that a “kinder, gentler” form of interventionism is being sold to the Democrats now that they are in the ascendant. I also have a hunch we’ll soon be hearing that “it takes a global village” to win the war in Iraq. Liberal interventionism awaits its turn at the helm: that they will take us to the brink of a disaster similar to the one visited on us by their neoconservative counterparts is all too predictable.

Neither a surge in troops nor an increase in the amount of nonmilitary aid we pump into the stillborn Iraqi “government” can revive the patient. The only way to serve – and save – the national interest is to get out as quickly as possible, before more damage is done to our prestige, the U.S. Treasury, and the long-suffering peoples of the region.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].