Lots of people — conservative hawks, particularly — feel like the Iraq War was won with the "surge*" that came as a last-ditch gamble in the final two years of the Bush Administration. And in fact, the surge — combined with the so-called Anbar Awakening— did reduce the violence in Iraq quite a bit. But the surge was designed to accomplish a number of strategic goals that never got accomplished: A reduction in violence was supposed to give Iraqis the space for crucial reconciliation and institution-building achievements that never occurred. Which is why we're here today.
*It's insane how quickly all of this has receded from "current events" to "history." Damn.
In June 2008, Foreign Affairs offered this assessment of the surge:
The surge has changed the situation not by itself but only in conjunction with several other developments: the grim successes of ethnic cleansing, the tactical quiescence of the Shiite militias, and a series of deals between U.S. forces and Sunni tribes that constitute a new bottom-up approach to pacifying Iraq. The problem is that this strategy to reduce violence is not linked to any sustainable plan for building a viable Iraqi state. If anything, it has made such an outcome less likely, by stoking the revanchist fantasies of Sunni Arab tribes and pitting them against the central government and against one another. In other words, the recent short-term gains have come at the expense of the long-term goal of a stable, unitary Iraq.Yup.
In response to all of this, conservative hawks replied: "Shut up." The surge didn't achieve its goals, they said, but it succeeded because Iraq had found a new bottoms-up approach to creating peace that nobody anticipated.
It's clear now they were wrong. Again.
The result of all these errors is that it's been a long time since American officials could make a "right" call in Iraq. Stay? You'll just keep getting Americans killed in a war that had already dangerously weakened the country and its credibility. Leave: You set the stage for extremists, massacres, and strongmen to fill the vacuum. There was never any good way to stay; there was never any good way to get out. We're seeing proof of the latter, now, but both propositions are true. What a tragedy. What a terrible, awful tragedy.