Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Obama's Problem: Probably Wrong About the Surge
McCain's Problem: Undeniably Wrong About the Whole War

There's a lot of chatter right now about Obama's seeming unwillingness to admit that he was wrong about the surge There's a lot to be said about that, but let's cut to the chase:

Obama was probably wrong about the surge, and, if so, that was a fairly serious error. However, at this stage such arguments are almost unavoidably comparative, and so it's important to note that, on the other hand, McCain was--and, perhaps even more importantly, still is--wrong about the very much more serious issue of going to war in the first place. There is simply no question that McCain's error was worse--much, much worse.

Although I'm more interested in the substantive point here, there are obvious rhetorical/political implications of this fact: when McCain attacks Obama for being wrong about the surge, Obama should attack McCain for being wrong about the war. When McCain attacks Obama for failing to acknowledge his mistake about the surge, Obama should attack McCain for failing to acknowledge his mistake about the war. Obama wins each of these arguments.

A footnote here: if you've been keeping score, you know that I opposed the war but supported the surge (2 for 2. Hooray for me.). So I don't have any problem with the conclusion that the surge worked. But even I must admit that this issue is very complicated. There were many other factors in play, and it's not completely clear how much increases in troop levels mattered. So Obama's denial isn't as preposterous as McCain's. McCain's is right off the scale. Obama's is more like garden-variety political evasion. Now, don't get me wrong, I loathe garden-variety political evasion, I support Obama largely because he seems less willing to engage in it, and I'm not happy that he's doing so. Still, given the comparative nature of the choice that faces us, we do have to take into account that McCain's blatant denial of the obvious fact that the war was a f*ck-up of world-historical proportions dwarfs Obama's rather less blatant denial concerning something considerably less clear.

One way to view my point here is like this: there's no reason for Obama to get cagey at all. He could admit error (if error it is), but point out that everybody makes mistakes, that his error concerned a complicated and unclear issue that came down basically to a coin-toss...but that McCain was wrong when it mattered even more--and when the right answer was clear to anyone willing to face the facts.

Think about it this way: if we were to try to roughly quantify the respective errors, how would we do so? Suppose, more-or-less arbitrarily, we say that being right about the surge is worth something like 100 President Points. If so, how much is being right about the war worth? Five thousand points? Ten thousand? Certainly more than a thousand, i.e. more than ten times more.

Having been wrong about the surge is big; but having been wrong about the war is huge.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


WRT to surge working, I think you need to define *working*. Because the surge put additional troops in Baghdad only, a city which had already been segregated and/or ethnically cleansed. And the most noticable decline in violence had already occurred elsewhere - in Anbar Province - where the Sunni Awakening had already taken place before the surge was even suggested.

So while I'm certainly willing to stipulate that the surge had a beneficial effect, I'm not convinced that it had as much utility as its proponents contend.

"McCaffrey and other former officers say that a surge of 30,000 additional troops into a country of 30 million could never have enough of an impact alone to turn things around.

"The least important aspect of the so-called change in strategy was the surge," McCaffrey says.

Once Insurgents, Now Allies

If it wasn't just the surge, how did it happen?

It could be, in part, exhaustion among Sunnis, tired of fighting and dying. Or also, in part, a cease-fire declared by the largest Shiite militia, others say.

But another part, and possibly the most significant, can be traced to the end of last May. That month, 126 U.S. troops died; it was the second deadliest month for U.S. forces during the war. Petraeus was under pressure to reduce those casualties.

"Petraeus seems to have concluded that it was essential to cut deals with the Sunni insurgents if he was going to succeed in reducing U.S. casualties," Macgregor says.

The military now calls those "deals" the Concerned Local Citizens program or simply, CLCs.

It's a somewhat abstract euphemism. The CLC program turns groups of former insurgents, including fighters for al-Qaida in Iraq, into paid, temporary allies of the U.S. military.

McCaffrey just got back from a five-day trip to Iraq where, he says, he "went to a couple of these CLCs, you know, five awkward-looking guys with their own AKs standing at a road junction with two magazines of ammunition — and they're there as early warning to protect their families in that village. I think that that's good."


And here:

12:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or, as put better by a commenter at ObWi:

"If you define "the Surge" as "everything that reduced violence in Iraq," then the claim that "the Surge worked" is unexceptional, if trivial, for a limited definition of "worked" (one that, e.g., does not include political reconciliation). That appears to be the line that McCain is taking: everything that reduced violence, both before and after the literal Surge, whether or not it was caused by the literal Surge, is "the Surge." Therefore "the Surge" reduced violence, and anyone who opposed the literal Surge was wrong. As if opposing the literal Surge also meant opposing the Anbar Awakening and the Mahdi Army ceasefire."

12:41 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Well, with all due respect, I know all this stuff, and I think I was pretty careful to gesture at it.

But here's a question (not intended to settle the question, but to advance the discussion):

(A) Would violence have dropped near its current level without the "surge"*?

And here's another:

(B) What if the answer is 'no'?

One has to wonder whether the surge wasn't something like the icing on the itself, it wouldn't have done the trick, but without it, we wouldn't have turned the corner.

But even if something like that is right, it's reasonable to be skeptical about how much credit McCain deserves. That is, unless he took all that other stuff into account, and advocated the surge-as-icing, he may have just been lucky.

Another thing to think about: since McCain seems to have advocated force and escalation at every point in this tragic tale, he may not get credit for finally getting it at least quasi-right. Even a stopped clock is right twice per etc. etc.

* Others have suggested that 'surge' is a misnomer, and that it's really an escalation. So I wanted to note that.

1:44 PM  
Blogger rilkefan said...

Jeez, you don't gesture at data and argument showing your basic premise is incoherent twaddle. And you don't then "advance the discussion" by asking trivial questions that avoid the issue. ("Nuking Iraq was a good idea." "No it wasn't - everybody's dead!" "Well, but A) Would violence have dropped near its current level without the "surge"*? and B) etc."

Strike that - you do. Oh well.

2:03 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

I don't think you're making any sense here, Rilkefan, but I'm not even sure who you're responding to...

2:56 AM  

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