The Iraq War ‘Surge’ Myth Returns

From the Archive: Sen. John McCain and other Republicans cited Chuck Hagel’s opposition to the Iraq War “surge” as their chief attack line to block his nomination to be Defense Secretary, but Hagel refused to accept their distortion of history, defying a cherished myth of Official Washington, which Robert Parry described two weeks ago.

By Robert Parry (Originally published Jan. 17, 2013, revised with slight updating)

At confirmation hearings for Defense Secretary-designate Chuck Hagel, Official Washington is reprising one of its favorite myths, the story of the “successful surge” in Iraq. Politicians and pundits have made clear that the Senate Armed Services Committee should hector Hagel over his opposition to President George W. Bush’s 2007 “surge” of 30,000 troops into that failed war.

These “surge” lovers, who insist that Hagel be taken to task for his supposedly bad judgment over the “surge,” include MSNBC’s favorite neocon, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, and conservative columnist George F. Will, who said Hagel should be asked, “If the surge had not happened, what would have happened in Iraq?”

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona. (Wikimedia/Commons)

Though surely tempted to finesse this historical question, former Sen. Hagel, R-Nebraska, chose not to bow to this deeply entrenched Washington myth when he appeared before the committee on Jan. 31. He refused to give a simple yes-or-no answer to Sen. John McCain’s question of whether Hagel had been wrong to oppose the “surge.” Hagel insisted that the question demanded a more complex answer.

And, indeed, a fully honest answer to Will’s question — and to the similar one posed by McCain, R-Arizona — would be that the “surge” sacrificed some 1,000 additional U.S. military dead (and killed countless innocent Iraqis) while contributing very little to the war’s outcome.

Any serious analysis of what happened in Iraq in 2007-08 would trace the decline in Iraqi sectarian violence mostly to strategies that predated the “surge” and were implemented by the U.S. commanding generals in 2006, George Casey and John Abizaid, who wanted as small a U.S. “footprint” as possible to tamp down Iraqi nationalism.

Among their initiatives, Casey and Abizaid ran a highly classified operation to eliminate key al-Qaeda leaders, most notably the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June 2006. Casey and Abizaid also exploited growing Sunni animosities toward al-Qaeda extremists by paying off Sunni militants to join the so-called “Awakening” in Anbar Province.

And, as the Sunni-Shiite sectarian killings reached horrendous levels in 2006, the U.S. military assisted in the de facto ethnic cleansing of mixed neighborhoods by helping Sunnis and Shiites move into separate enclaves protected by concrete barriers thus making the targeting of ethnic enemies more difficult. In other words, the flames of violence were likely to have abated whether Bush ordered the “surge” or not.

Radical Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr also helped by issuing a unilateral cease-fire, reportedly at the urging of his patrons in Iran who were interested in cooling down regional tensions and speeding up the U.S. withdrawal. By 2008, another factor in the declining violence was the growing awareness among Iraqis that the U.S. military’s occupation indeed was coming to an end. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was demanding a firm timetable for American withdrawal from Bush, who finally capitulated.

Woodward’s Analysis

Even author Bob Woodward, who had published best-sellers that praised Bush’s early war judgments, concluded that the “surge” was only one factor and possibly not even a major one in the declining violence.

In his book, The War Within, Woodward wrote, “In Washington, conventional wisdom translated these events into a simple view: The surge had worked. But the full story was more complicated. At least three other factors were as important as, or even more important than, the surge.”

Woodward, whose book drew heavily from Pentagon insiders, listed the Sunni rejection of al-Qaeda extremists in Anbar Province and the surprise decision of al-Sadr to order a cease-fire as two important factors. A third factor, which Woodward argued may have been the most significant, was the use of new highly classified U.S. intelligence tactics that allowed for rapid targeting and killing of insurgent leaders.

Beyond the dubious impact of the “surge” on the gradual reduction in violence, Bush’s escalation failed to achieve its other stated goals, particularly creating political space so the Sunni-Shiite divisions over issues like oil profits could be resolved. Despite the sacrifice of additional American and Iraqi blood, those compromises did not materialize.

And, if you’re wondering what the “surge” and its loosened rules of engagement meant for Iraqis, you should watch the WikiLeaks’ “Collateral Murder” video, which depicts a scene during the “surge” when U.S. firepower mowed down a group of Iraqi men, including two Reuters journalists, as they walked down a street in Baghdad. The U.S. attack helicopters then killed a father and wounded his two children when the man stopped his van in an effort to take survivors to the hospital.

However, in Washington, the still-influential neocons saw an opportunity in 2008 when the numbers of Iraq War casualties declined. The neocons credited themselves and the “successful surge” with the improvement as they polished up their tarnished reputations, badly stained by the blood of the long and disastrous conflict.

As the neocons pushed the “successful surge” myth, they were aided by the mainstream news media, which also had promoted the ill-fated war and was looking for a way to bolster its standing with the public. Typical of this new conventional wisdom, Newsweek published a cover story on the “surge” under the title, “victory, at last.” To say otherwise brought you harsh criticism for not giving credit to “the troops.”

The Myth’s Consequences

Thus, the myth grew that Bush’s “surge” had brought Iraqi violence under control and the United States to the brink of “victory.” Gen. David Petraeus, who took command of Iraq after Bush yanked Casey and Abizaid, was elevated into hero status as a military genius. Also, Defense Secretary Robert Gates received the encomium of “wise man” for implementing the “surge” after Bush fired Donald Rumsfeld in November 2006 for standing behind his field generals and suggesting a faster U.S. troop drawdown in Iraq.

With the new conventional wisdom firmly established in 2008, media stars pounded Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama for his heresy regarding the “surge.” In major televised interviews, CBS News’ Katie Couric and ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos demanded that Obama admit he was wrong to oppose the “surge” and that his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, was right to support it.

For weeks, Obama held firm, insisting correctly that the issue was more complicated than his interviewers wanted to admit. He argued that there were many factors behind Iraq’s changed security environment. But ultimately he caved in while being interrogated on Sept. 4 by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly.

“I think that the surge has succeeded in ways that nobody anticipated,” Obama confessed to O’Reilly. “It’s succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.”

Much as Hagel was pressured to do, Obama judged that continued resistance to this Washington “group think” was futile. But candidate Obama’s surrender on the “successful surge” myth had long-term consequences.

For one, it gave Gen. Petraeus and Defense Secretary Gates inflated reputations inside Official Washington and greater leverage in 2009 to force President Obama into accepting a similar “surge” in Afghanistan, what some analysts now regard as Obama’s biggest national security blunder.  [For details, see Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]

The Iraq War’s “surge” also did nothing to change the trajectory of an eventual American defeat there. Perhaps the only real accomplishment of the “surge” was to let President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney enjoy a decent interval between their departure from government in early 2009 and the unceremonious U.S. departure from Iraq in late 2011.

In the final accounting of the neocon adventure of conquering Iraq, nearly 4,500 American soldiers had died; some 30,000 were wounded; and an estimated $1 trillion was squandered. What was ultimately left behind was not only a devastated Iraqi population but an authoritarian Shiite government (in place of Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian Sunni government) and an Iraq that had become a regional ally of Iran (rather than a bulwark against Iran).

The hard truth is that this bloody folly was not “salvaged” by the “surge” despite what the likes of Michael O’Hanlon, George F. Will and John McCain claim. The “surge” simply extended the killing for a few more years and bought Bush and Cheney their “decent interval.”

But none of this reality has persuaded Official Washington to rethink its “successful surge” orthodoxy and there is now pressure on Chuck Hagel to genuflect before this conventional wisdom to win his Senate confirmation.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and


13 comments for “The Iraq War ‘Surge’ Myth Returns

  1. incontinent reader
    February 3, 2013 at 14:56

    The “surge”, an American feel good policy to prove we are still in control (aka “is that a rocket in my pocket, or do I still like me?”)

  2. Jim Clark
    February 3, 2013 at 00:33

    Forgive me if I’m wrong but I’d swear the reason given by the chimp’s administration for the surge was the upcoming elections. The “surge” ( my god but that’s a stupid phrase in and of itself) was supposed to provide a more secure atmosphere for the elections. The elections werer a shambles so the “surge” was a failure, based on the very reasons thay gave for doing it.

  3. TheAZCowBoy
    February 2, 2013 at 15:20

    You’ll have to forgive our Sen(ile) John McCain. Ever since he wrecked 6 A3D navy fighters and was allowed to continue flying because his father was an admiral, Senator Mcain has felt he is one of them ‘Chosen’ critters that spend more time in front of the cameras talking nonsense than attending to the business of ‘looking out for the people of Arizona’ as our senator. Now, that he has flip-flopped’ and is ‘again’ on the side of legislating the US Immigration’ dilemma into some viable solution we must insist that he ‘Lead, follow or get the hell out of the way!’

  4. Hillary
    February 1, 2013 at 14:19

    The USA brought a really murderous Holocaust to Iraq and Americans were were never told the truth about it.
    A long lasting Holocaust starting with the murder of 1.5 million children under Sanctions, in a “price worth paying” (Albright/ Clinton ) campaign. Then G.W.Bush US army of freedom and democracy created over 4 million Iraqi orphans.
    Abu Garib Falujha ? and over 2,400 Iraqi children with some being as young as 10 were put into US prisons according to Human Rights Watch.
    The G.W.Bush Iraq “campaign” caused the murder of over 1,300,000 Iraqis according to ICH .
    The once beautiful Iraq landscape is loaded with Depleted Uranium and Cluster Bombs.
    Yes the USA brought a holocaust to Iraq & Americans are in denial.
    In September 2002, the Bush administration created an agency called Office of Special Plans (OSP)to manufacture scare stories about Iraq’s weapons and ties to terrorists and more.
    “It wasn’t intelligence‚ — it was propaganda”.
    The Project for the New American Century (PNAC) prior to Bush being elected president stated that an invasion of Iraq is part of a larger Middle East policy.
    Philip Zelikow, who became the executive director of the 9/11 Commission set up to investigate the terrorist attacks on the US in September 2001- stated that a prime motive for the invasion of Iraq was to eliminate a threat to Israel, a staunch US ally in the Middle East.
    The same American neocons are repeating their propaganda for another illegal war this time on Iran because of WMDs and to continue the War on Islam.

  5. Bill Cromer
    February 1, 2013 at 10:51

    Three American soldiers in a Humvee (Hotel 2/6) are under attack by insurgents from two locations to their east in a nearby courtyard. One intersection where five men are standing when Namir Noor-Eldeen arrives [01:31] and a second intersection where he photographed the Humvee.

    When the helicopters arrive – flying south to north, not yet circling – one (Crazyhorse 1/8) targets a van traveling south toward the insurgents last reported position. Simultaneously, another (Crazyhorse 1/9) targets some men walking north on the same road toward the same position and reports that one of them (Saeed Chmagh) has a weapon.

    The van driver (Saleh Matasher Tomal) turned one block before entering the dangerous intersection and the photographer kneels down with extreme caution to photograph the Humvee. Lastly, three minutes after the first engagement, the van returns traveling north on the same road.

    Totally remarkable analysis of the Collateral Murder video Robert Parry! I’ll bet you’re even gullible enough to think this is the only gun-site video, among dozens posted on the internet, where insurgents did not place their weapons nearby when they heard Apaches coming and walk around pretending to be innocent civilians.

    • F. G. Sanford
      February 1, 2013 at 12:25

      I guess they hid the WMDs when they heard the Apaches coming too…just to make us smart, good guy Americans look dumb and bad. Must have been a real pain in the ass to move tons of WMDs every time they heard an Apache! They’re so sneaky! If they had just been willing to fight fair, we could have won!

    • Frances in California
      February 1, 2013 at 20:03

      I pray most fervently that whoever has suffered under your command turns on you someday.

    • TheAZCowBoy
      February 2, 2013 at 16:00

      Keyboard ‘warriors’ have more facts than one imagines, huh Pilgrims?

  6. WMcMillan
    February 1, 2013 at 04:14

    John McCain is just a tired angry old man who hasn’t been the same since Bush kicked his butt in the Presidential primary in the Carolinas. Instead of getting the “wake up call” that Bush and Rove would do anything, say anything to win, McCain punked and got with the program. What we’ve done in Iraq, what we’ve done in the ME, is going to come back to haunt us. We have the baddest military on the planet and guess what, it can’t get it done. Why? Because we are doing evil.

  7. Otto Schiff
    February 1, 2013 at 01:50

    There seems to be no shortage of war criminals.
    It is time for an international legal system to deal with that.

    • Frances in California
      February 1, 2013 at 20:01

      Too bad the International Legal System is co-opted by the International Criminal Oligarchy; they are only benevolent enough to let us go on working hard and bailing them out.

  8. F. G. Sanford
    January 31, 2013 at 19:08

    Looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks. Wonder what it could be? A trillion dollars on the credit card. Four thousand Americans killed. Getting your ass kicked by a semi-literate non-industrialized tribal society? Priceless!

  9. Matt Palmer
    January 31, 2013 at 15:01

    “We don’t do nuance.” And, “We make our own reality.” And, “We’re number one!” (number two, more like).

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