A Surge of Told-You-Sos

I can’t get all excited about debates about the “surge” – mostly because Matt Yglesias is right: before the surge, things looked bleak, and all options looked like they risked real disaster; now that the surge has worked tactically, all options look better. Tactical success has opened up more strategic possibility. The real debate to be having, though, is about strategy.

Ross Douthat, meanwhile, is highly skeptical of Democrats who supported a surge of troops in 2003-2004, but opposed the surge in 2006. But, apart from a general distrust of Democrats, why should he be? After all, objectively the Dean/Kerry argument was correct. More troops in 2003-2004 might well have avoided the ascending spiral of chaos of 2005-2006, and the odds of success appeared much better in 2003-2004 than they appeared in 2006-2007. The success of the surge vindicates their view: after all, I haven’t heard anyone argue that the surge was more likely to succeed now than it would have been four years earlier. Assuming all domestic participants in the debate are acting in good faith (or that all are acting in bad faith), the worst one could say is: Kerry and Dean were right years before Bush, and by the time Bush came around to their view they had (in retrospect, prematurely) given up hope. That’s not a very damning indictment, is it?

But, returning to the real question: how does the success of the surge impact our evaluation of the strategic question before us, or of the candidates who are vying for our support to pursue their chosen strategy over the next four years?

On the strategy itself, very little. A short-term reduction in violence is a very poor predictor of the viability of a long-term large-scale military presence (McCain’s goal), and says nothing about whether such a goal is to be desired. By the same token, it sheds no light whatsoever on the viability of a “grand bargain” with Iran. Since that is the big strategic question to be answered – do we want a big military ground presence in the region to contain and deter Iran, and to keep the Gulf states from hedging their bets and shifting away from a reliance on American protection, with all the military and diplomatic risks such a strategy entails; or can we accommodate a rising Iran to a certain degree and deter really reckless behavior from offshore – debate about the surge and who was right about the surge is somewhat secondary in importance – tertiary, in fact, since a debate over the wisdom of the war in the first place should probably be secondary.

On the two candidates, not too much more. Both candidates are vulnerable to the charge of being stopped clocks who were right at a critical moment. Barack Obama opposed the Iraq War, and opposed it from the beginning. John McCain supported the surge and, unlike his President, supported it years before it was implemented – supported it back when it was a Democratic talking point against the Bush Adminsitration. How much light does this shed on which candidate is more capable of guiding our foreign policy going forward? Not much. If they are both truly stopped clocks, then neither is going to be a particularly good steward of foreign policy. What both candidates need to convince us is that they are not stopped clocks. Senator Obama at least seems to realize this, though I don’t think he’s done an especially good job of convincing so far. McCain, on the other hand, seems to be relying on personal qualities to get Americans to trust him, and to leave it at that.