Reviving the ‘Successful Surge’ Myth

From the Archive: Over the past several years whenever American neocons say they should lead the way on national security, they invoke the “successful surge” myth, claiming that President George W. Bush’s Iraq escalation in 2007 “won” the war and that President Obama pulled defeat from the jaws of victory, a fiction that Robert Parry dissected in 2014.

By Robert Parry (Originally published on June 19, 2014)

A beloved myth of Official Washington especially among Republicans, neocons and other supporters of the Iraq War is the fable of the “successful surge,” how President George W. Bush’s heroic escalation of 30,000 troops in 2007 supposedly “won” that war; it then follows that the current Iraq disaster must be President Barack Obama’s fault.

The appeal of this myth should be obvious. Nearly every “important” person in the U.S. foreign policy establishment and the mainstream media endorsed the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, and such well-placed and well-paid people do not like to admit that their judgment was so bad that they should be disqualified from holding any responsible position forever.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, appearing on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, appearing on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Further, since almost no one who promoted this criminal and bloody enterprise was held accountable after Mission Accomplished wasn’t, these opinion leaders were still around in 2007 at the time of the “surge” and thus in a position to cite any positive trends as proof of “success.” Many are still around voicing their august opinions the likes of Sen. John McCain, former Vice President Dick Cheney and neocon theorist Robert Kagan so they still get to tell the rest of us how really great their judgment was.

On June 18, 2014, McCain fulminated from the Senate floor, accusing Obama of squandering the  “surge,” the success of which he deemed a “fact.” Cheney along with his daughter Liz accused the President of “securing his legacy as the man who betrayed our past and squandered our freedom.”

Kagan, who pushed for an invasion of Iraq as early as 1998, attacked Obama for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, and not committing the U.S. military to the civil war in Syria. Kagan told the New York Times: “It’s striking how two policies driven by the same desire to avoid the use of military power are now converging to create this burgeoning disaster” in Iraq.

But the core of the neocon narrative is that the 2007 “surge” essentially “won” the war in Iraq and that an open-ended U.S. military occupation of Iraq would have kept a lid on the sectarian violence that has periodically ripped the country apart since Bush’s invasion overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003.

There is much wrong about this narrative, including that it was Bush who signed the timeline for total U.S. withdrawal in 2008 and that the Iraqi government insisted that U.S. troops depart under that schedule at the end of 2011. But the greatest fallacy is to pretend that it was Bush’s “surge” that achieved the temporary lull in the sectarian violence and that it achieved its principal goal of resolving the Sunni-Shiite divisions.

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, also in 2006.

And, as the Sunni-Shiite sectarian killings reached horrendous levels that year, 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 sectarian 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. In other words, key factors in the drop in violence had nothing to do with the “surge.”

And, 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.

Plus, 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 2008, the still-influential neocons saw an opportunity to rehabilitate their bloody reputations when the numbers of Iraq War casualties declined. The neocons credited themselves and the “successful surge” with the improvement.

As the neocons pushed this “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. (At the time, many Democrats, including then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, misinterpreted Rumsfeld’s dismissal and Gates’s hiring as a sign that Bush would wind down the war when it actually signaled his plan to escalate it.)

With the “successful surge” conventional wisdom firmly established in 2008, media stars pounded Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama for his heresy in doubting 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. 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, 2008, 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.”

Obama apparently judged that continued resistance to this Washington “group think” was futile. Candidate Obama’s surrender on the “successful surge” myth also was the first sign of his tendency to cave in when faced with a misguided Washington consensus.

His capitulation had other long-term consequences. For one, it gave Gen. Petraeus and Defense Secretary Gates inflated reputations inside Official Washington and greater leverage in 2009 (along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) to force President Obama into accepting a similar “surge” in Afghanistan, what some analysts view 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 what amounted to a major American national security failure. Perhaps the only real accomplishment of the “surge” was to let President Bush and Vice President Cheney enjoy a “decent interval” between their departure from government in early 2009 and the unceremonious U.S. departure from Iraq in late 2011. That “decent interval” was purchased with the lives of about 1,000 U.S. soldiers and countless thousands of Iraqis.

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 nation 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 the bloody folly of the Iraq War was not “salvaged” by the “surge” , despite that preferred Washington narrative. As thrilling as it might be to think back on the heroic President Bush and the brave neocons bucking the anti-war pressures in 2007 and saving the day, the harsh reality is that another 1,000 U.S. soldiers and many more Iraqis were sent to their deaths in the cause of creating a politically useful myth.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). You also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

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3 comments for “Reviving the ‘Successful Surge’ Myth

  1. TMA
    August 16, 2015 at 9:17 pm

    Thank you for pointing out how foolish we were for watching the American casualties decline throughout the so called surge and thinking there was some sort of a correlation. It should have been obvious all along that the deafening chorus of opposition which claimed that casualties, bombings, and fighting would go up; as well as those who predicted that Iraq would simply degenerate further until the US military was driven out by force were right all along. Indeed, not even Obama himself with his claims of success for policies implemented by George Bush, was completely taken in by the myth. The subsequent disaster which left us with an Islamic terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East is completely Bush’s fault and has NOTHING to do with Obama’s policy of complete withdrawal and abandonment of the allies we left behind. Quite a successful myth!

  2. Mortimer
    August 18, 2015 at 9:31 am

    Below is an excerpt from the piece on Petraeus and surge written by the Brave and Brilliant Michael Hastings. Hastings’ sudden death in an unusually fiery car crash seemed very suspicious. Now we discover that computerized cars can be hacked and commandeered — many are now speculating that Hastings did not suicide himself, as was reported, but was in fact “terminated” for his exposures of the two generals, Petraeus and McChrystal. Michael Hastings had another hot expose’ in the works at the time of his demise…
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    The Sins Of General David Petraeus
    Petraeus seduced America. We should never have trusted him.
    Nov. 11, 2012
    Michael Hastings

    More so than any other leading military figure, Petraeus’ entire philosophy has been based on hiding the truth, on deception, on building a false image. “Perception” is key, he wrote in his 1987 Princeton dissertation: “What policymakers believe to have taken place in any particular case is what matters — more than what actually occurred.”
    Yes, it’s not what actually happens that matters — it’s what you can convince the public it thinks happened.
    Until this weekend, Petraeus had been incredibly successful in making the public think he was a man of great integrity and honor, among other things. Most of the stories written about him fall under what we hacks in the media like to call “a blow job.” Vanity Fair. The New Yorker. The New York Times. The Washington Post. Time. Newsweek. In total, all the profiles, stage-managed and controlled by the Pentagon’s multimillion dollar public relations apparatus, built up an unrealistic and superhuman myth around the general that, in the end, did not do Petraeus or the public any favors. Ironically, despite all the media fellating, our esteemed and sex-obsessed press somehow missed the actual blow job.
    Before I lay out the Petraeus counter-narrative — a narrative intentionally ignored by most of the Pentagon press and national security reporters, for reasons I’ll soon explain — let me say this about the man once known as King David, General Betray-Us, or P4, by his admirers, his enemies, and his fellow service members, respectively. He’s an impressive guy, a highly motivated individual, a world-class bullshit artist, a fitness addict, and a man who spent more time in shitty places over the past 10 years than almost any other American serving his or her country has. I’ve covered him for seven years now, and he’ll always have my respect and twisted admiration.

    … And questions about his role in the Benghazi debacle are also likely to deepen.

    … There’s his war record in Iraq, starting when he headed up the Iraqi security force training program in 2004. He’s more or less skated on that, including all the weapons he lost, the insane corruption, and the fact that he essentially armed and trained what later became known as “Iraqi death squads.” On his final Iraq tour, during the so-called “surge,” he pulled off what is perhaps the most impressive con job in recent American history. He convinced the entire Washington establishment that we won the war.
    He did it by papering over what the surge actually was: We took the Shiites’ side in a civil war, armed them to the teeth, and suckered the Sunnis into thinking we’d help them out too. It was a brutal enterprise — over 800 Americans died during the surge, while hundreds of thousands of Iraqis lost their lives during a sectarian conflict that Petraeus’ policies fueled. Then he popped smoke and left the members of the Sunni Awakening to fend for themselves.

    … .Petraeus was so convincing on Baghdad that he manipulated President Obama into trying the same thing in Kabul. In Afghanistan, he first underhandedly pushed the White House into escalating the war in September 2009 (calling up columnists to “box” the president in) and waged a full-on leak campaign to undermine the White House policy process. Petraeus famously warned his staff that the White House was “fucking” with the wrong guy.
    The doomed Afghanistan surge would come back to bite him in the ass, however. A year after getting the war he wanted, P4 got stuck having to fight it himself. After Petraeus frenemy General Stanley McChrystal got fired for trashing the White House in a story I published in Rolling Stone, the warrior-scholar had to deploy yet again.

    http://www.buzzfeed.com/mhastings/the-sins-of-general-david-petraeus#.ukwgD3AYz

  3. Mortimer
    August 18, 2015 at 9:58 am

    Hastings continued to report stories that illuminated the darker side of U.S. military actions, including an investigation into the Army’s deployment of psyops, or psychological operations, on U.S. senators visiting combat zones in order to secure more war funding.

    In Hastings’s 2012 book, “The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan,” Hastings wrote about being approached by one of Gen. McChrystal’s aides. “We’ll hunt you down and kill you if we don’t like what you write,” said the unnamed aide, who afterwards apologized to Hastings for his remarks.

    Hastings later wrote, “I wasn’t disturbed by the claim. Whenever I’d been reporting around groups of dudes whose job it was to kill people, one of them would usually mention that they were going to kill me.”

    But never did those fears escalate the way they did during the final days and moments of Hastings’s life.

    L.A. Weekly interviewed Hastings’s neighbor, Jordanna Thigpen, who said Hastings was convinced that he was a target of surveillance after reading about the Department of Justice’s seizure of AP phone records in May. He became even more wary, she said, when details about the NSA’s domestic spying programs emerged in early June through former contractor Edward Snowden.

    “He was scared, and he wanted to leave town,” Thigpen said.

    The story that Hastings was working on at the time of his death centered around CIA Director John Brennan, the chief architect of President Obama’s foreign drone program. It related specifically to Brennan’s role as the administration’s point man tracking investigative journalists and their sources in Washington.

    This email from Stratfor, a CIA-connected private security firm whose emails were hacked and released to the public by Wikileaks in February of last year, reveals that Brennan was indeed behind the “witch hunts of investigative journalists.”

    The night of his death, Hastings had contacted Wikileaks attorney Jennifer Robinson and sent an email to his colleagues at the news site BuzzFeed, saying he was working on a big story and was “going off the rada[r],” citing fears over federal authorities interviewing his friends. Hastings blind-copied his friend, the Staff Sgt. Joe Biggs, whom Hastings had known from his time embedded in Afghanistan.

    According to L.A. Weekly, just hours before the deadly crash Hastings had asked to borrow his neighbor’s Volvo because he suspected his own car’s computer system had been hacked.

    The Los Angeles Police Department said repeatedly it suspects no foul play. Questioned after Hastings’s death, the FBI confirmed that the journalist was not under any investigation.

    But those statements were directly contradicted in September when redacted FBI documents surfaced following a Freedom of Information Act request by the news network Al Jazeera, which showed that Hastings was in fact under investigation for a story in which he had interviewed a U.S. soldier who had been captured in Afghanistan.

    Is This What Cyber-Assassination Looks Like?

    In an era of unsanctioned drone warfare—where a man operating a joystick in New Mexico can carry out the remote-controlled assassination of any person worldwide who shows up on the President’s “kill list”—it may not be far-fetched to imagine that similar capabilities, and techniques, are being employed closer to home.

    Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism chief under both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, told the Huffington Post that Hastings’s crash looked “consistent with a car cyber attack.”

    What did he mean? According to Stefan Savage, a computer science professor at the University of California, San Diego, any modern vehicle’s computer system made by any manufacturer can be hacked.

    In a phone interview with Occupy.com, Savage described a series of experiments that he and his team conducted, in which they remotely hacked a car’s computer systems. “If you’re talking about where people have arbitrary control of a car, that takes a significant amount of time,” Savage said. “If you want to take it over and break it, that’s less complicated.”

    Savage explained that all computers in a car are connected to one another, bridged by one component and compromised by that same component. As a result, he said, “We could listen to conversations in the car, and could take over everything in the drivetrain, like acceleration and brakes, through a cellular network.”

    In terms of range and power to manipulate a vehicle remotely, he said, “We found vulnerabilities from 1,000 miles away.”

    After the successful experiments were reported, Savage noted a huge response from manufacturers that spurred new innovations in cybersecurity for car computer systems. “They’ve spent millions of dollars on hiring new people, and acknowledged that [cybersecurity] is something they need to take seriously,” he said.

    “When Michael embarrassed [the media] by writing a story about what the military is actually up to, the universal refrain was, ‘How dare you!’” said Cenk Uygur, host of The Young Turks and a friend of Hastings. “Anytime someone sticks their head up and doesn’t go along, they’re universally despised by the establishment. They were jealous of him, too. The media was not a fan of Michael, at all.”

    On a CNN segment broadcast shortly after Gen. McChrystal’s forced resignation, CBS chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan said, “Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has.” Hastings’s “Runaway General” article had drawn Pentagon apologists out of the woodwork, who condemned him for breaking what anonymous sources for the Washington Post and ABC News called unspoken journalistic ground rules.

    As Uygur further explained: “All the large media conglomerates have some tie to getting contracts from the government. Whether Comcast needed approval for a merger, or GE needed a defense contract, every one of those giant corporations needs something from the government. So it’s become a synergistic environment—Comcast gives the government something, the government gives Comcast something else.

    “The implicit message is: Don’t rock the boat, and keep the gravy train coming,” Uygur said.

    A Chilling Brand of Outsourcing

    In the last four months, amid heightened tensions over government spying and a widening pursuit of whistleblowers, many have speculated that Hastings’s death was the product of a conspiracy involving the CIA, NSA, FBI or other federal agencies. What has been less discussed is the possibility that Hastings was assassinated by private contractors—conceivably the same types who were involved or affiliated with operations in Iraq or Afghanistan, thousands of whom remain active today.

    Even after private defense contractors committed gross and punishable offenses overseas, those same firms continue to receive no-bid contracts from the U.S. government with zero accountability for their crimes. KBR’s showers electrocuted troops while their administrators forced gang-rape victims to sign mandatory arbitration agreements that prevented them from suing. Halliburton overcharged the government by tens of millions of dollars. And Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater/Xe, was himself implicated in a murder and has spoken of leading an anti-Muslim crusade through his company.

    This infographic shows the alarming amount of money—some $3.3 trillion—spent on private military contractors since 9/11. But what rarely gets discussed, beyond the dollars wasted and the crimes committed by private war-profiteering corporations, is the pervasive, growing sense of domination of these mega-firms in the past decade that have solidified their rule over U.S. military and foreign policy decisions.

    The question that Hastings’s unexplained death poses is whether those same private, militarized forces may be bringing the war home as they deploy technology and battlefield-honed tactics to ensure that deeper truths remain unseen — and that nothing threatens the bottom line.

    Just south of the Melrose intersection on Highland Avenue, in Hollywood’s Hancock Park neighborhood, the palm tree where Michael Hastings’s car crashed and exploded in flames in June remains scorched black about 20 feet high. Parts of the car are buried in the base of the tree, where a poster is attached that reads, “THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE” on one line, and “#HASTINGS” on another. A military medal is also pinned to the tree, and these photos taken by a local woman of the Hastings memorial show it at its busiest earlier in the summer.

    “His friends and family who know him, everyone says he drives like a grandma, so that right there doesn’t seem like something that he would be doing,” said Hastings’s friend, the Staff Sgt. Joe Biggs, in an interview with Fox News’s Megyn Kelly one week after the crash. “He had a lot of friends and family that cared about him. He had a good life to live. There’s no way he would be acting erratic like that and acting that out of control.

    http://www.occupy.com/article/exclusive-who-killed-michael-hastings#sthash.ArougDn8.dpuf

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