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Tilting at Windmills

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July 24, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

ON THE GROUND IN IRAQ....Blake Hounshell interviews McClatchy's Baghdad bureau chief, Nancy Youssef, about facts on the ground in Iraq:

FP: There's been a debate in the media about how much credit should be given to "the surge" for what you're seeing now. Barack Obama said it was just one of several factors that helped improve the security situation. Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, didn't even credit the addition of U.S. troops in his recent interview with Der Spiegel. Meanwhile, John McCain gives the surge the lion's share of the credit. Who do you think is right?

NY: When you ask the Iraqis here, they say that the added U.S. forces were a part of it, but what really turned things around was the Sahwa movement [of former insurgents switching sides], Moqtada's ceasefires, and in their minds, Basra. Basra was the first Iraqi-led success story, and it really changed the momentum. So, the Iraqis that we talk to see it as a complex equation with the U.S. troop surge as just one factor. And frankly, the situation on the ground suggests that they're right, because the surge troops have left, and the security situation remains better.

....FP: Do you think that Maliki is overestimating his ability to keep things under control as U.S. forces draw down?

NY: When I was embedded with Iraqi troops in Amarah, in the south, they didn't fire one shot. They made maybe a handful of arrests. They didn't find any real Mahdi Army leaders. They're knocking down open doors, so it's not surprising that things are going well. The Mahdi Army has fled.

What happens when they come back? Can the Iraqi Army take charge? And the truth is right now, nobody knows. But I tell you, having embedded with the Iraqi Army, they are worried about it. They know that the wins in Basra and Sadr City and in Amarah did not happen because they were outfighting the militiamen. It was because Moqtada al-Sadr said "Don't fight," and most of those militiamen fled. What happens when they inevitably come back? How confident can we be that the security gains are sustainable when the Iraqi Army has to face a real fight? And nobody knows the answer.

It's only natural that Iraqis are going to play up the Iraqi factors that helped improve security, just as it's only natural for Americans to play up our contributions. Still, Youssef is pretty clearly saying here that of course Obama is right when he says there are multiple reasons for the reduction in violence in Iraq, including not just the surge, but also the Sunni Awakening and the Mahdi Army ceasefires.

(But — what if you simply redefine the surge to include all these things? Then McCain is right after all that the surge deserves most of the credit. And believe it or not, that appears to be his strategy. "A surge is really a counterinsurgency made up of a number of components," he said on Wednesday. "I'm not sure people understand that 'surge' is part of a counterinsurgency." Things are really getting desperate in McCain land.)

In any case, the Basra thing is interesting too. At the time of the battle, last March, it certainly looked to me as if the Iraqi forces were doing poorly in Basra, and to this day there remain some unexplained oddities about how the fighting concluded and who was calling the shots when it did. Still, even though it required U.S. help, there's no question that in the end the pacification of Basra was a success. That said, if it's true that that success is driving a big chunk of the Iraqi public's newfound confidence, it would sure be interesting to finally know what really happened in Basra. Did Maliki's troops really win? Or did the Mahdi Army simply decide to fade away, as Youssef suggests? Why? Was the ceasefire orchestrated by Iran? Those questions, which were all hanging in the air after the battle was over, seem to have evaporated in the months since. It would be nice to see some fresh reporting on this now that the smoke has cleared and we have nearly half a year of distance from the fog of events.

Kevin Drum 2:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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Comments

....FP: Do you think that Maliki is overestimating his ability to keep things under control as U.S. forces draw down?

Yes, I'm sure Iran will stand up as we stand down but I'm also sure that Iraq will insist on it's sovereignty.

Posted by: Me_again on July 24, 2008 at 3:01 AM | PERMALINK

If only we'd known Barrack H. Obama was in bed with Al Sadr and the Bathists, the primary might have had a different outcome.

Posted by: Goran on July 24, 2008 at 3:07 AM | PERMALINK

The Surge also includes top-notch relief pitching. The Surge has kept the Yankees in the pennant race!

Posted by: Quaker in a Basement on July 24, 2008 at 3:18 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin is not quite being forthright in how he viewed the Basra operation at the time. He did not say it looked like the Iraqi military was doing poorly; he immediately described it in disastrous terms (without any real information) and now, like most opinions he has offered about the military situation in Iraq, he is being proven wrong. Kevin is one of the most honest and smartest partisans on either side with respect to political matters, but he just does not have the knowledge, experience or judgment when it comes to military matters.

[Brian, you have overlooked signing several of your posts today, but I am not too busy right now so I will go back and do that for you. Try to remember in the future, I don't usually have time to fix your oversights. --Mod]

Posted by: brian on July 24, 2008 at 4:59 AM | PERMALINK

John McCain believes that we just have to keep killing Iraqis for their own good.

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on July 24, 2008 at 5:43 AM | PERMALINK

Since we apparently have no idea what Iraqis really want and since we should never have invaded them in the first place, it seems the least we can do is just leave. It would be nice if we could fix their infrastructure before we go, but since the money to do so mysteriously disappears before it turns into roads, power and water facilities, perhaps it's best just to leave quickly (and take our Blackwater storm troopers with us).

Once we made up our minds to do so, we managed to hightail it out of Vietnam rather hastily. Perhaps there is some sort of retreat game plan gathering dust in the Pentagon or Nixon Library that we could avail ourselves of.

Posted by: Everyman on July 24, 2008 at 6:13 AM | PERMALINK

'The surge was the motivation that the "cut-n-run" progressives wanted to happen by leaving Iraq.'

Does this mean anything to anyone else? I can't make any sense of it.

Posted by: BarryG on July 24, 2008 at 7:12 AM | PERMALINK

The wisely anony-mouse person who posted @ 0459 is of course poorly informed. The first IraqSF intrusion into Basra this year resulted in their having their heads handed to them by the MahdiArmy fighting on their home turf. The 2d intrusion occurred after al-Sadr told his fighters to go home. Amazingly, it went off well since the opposition was absent. Funny how that works, eh?

The aptly named Mr Orwell is inarticulately trying to form a stab-in-the-back narrative. Reasonable people should ignore him.

What Our John is claiming credit for is the adoption of CounterInsurgency. There he is wrong. Individual commanders like Col McMaster and Col MacFarland (and Gen Petraus) were conducting CounterInsurgency in a patchwork, poorly coordinated fashion for years. They received no support from the Present Admin nor from Sec Rumsfeld nor theater commanders. Remember 'the last throes' and 'dead-enders' and 'as they stand up we can stand down?' Sad for SenMcCain that he is on record for supporting Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld etc and that he had no proof that he ever criticised this non-strategy.

Posted by: JohnMcC on July 24, 2008 at 7:41 AM | PERMALINK

I saw the McCain claims about the surge on Olbermann last night. Plain as day, he is acting like the Republicans back 2003. Attack those against the war on the basis of erroneous facts. When those facts are pointed out, refuse to acknowledge the obvious.

McCain didn't know that the Anbar awakening, one of the major reasons for the improved security situation in Iraq, pre-dated the surge. In fact, he stated the just the opposite as "historical fact". This bears pointing out over and over. We can't afford a continuation of the vicious "misunderstand, attack, obfuscate" style of leadership...

Posted by: Detroit Dan on July 24, 2008 at 8:09 AM | PERMALINK

The traditional media has declared that "the surge" has "worked," and thus must not be disagreed with. Any efforts to do so will be met with mockery, incessant tut-tut-ing, finger waving, and irrational metaphors. What really strikes me as odd is how clumsy they all are in attempting to define "the surge" as whatever happened that turned out well, and to ignore the burden it has placed on the actual people in the military (with long term negative ramifications which have yet to play out).

In particular, there is a patently silly assumption that all military action during the period of "the surge" was only possible because of "the surge." We already had a substantial force in Iraq, and surely we would have done many of the same military actions if circumstances (including getting rid of complete idiots like Rumsfeld) had allowed. The additional troops no doubt made such efforts more practical (it is always nice to have more resources), but it is a flagrant violation of logic to assert that cause "A" is responsible for outcome "B" merely because they both occurred. The current press obsession is all clearly a desperate attempt to make it look like all the people who have been mind-numbingly wrong about Iraq from the beginning were really right all along. War makes good television, and must be preserved at all costs as an option for future ratings.

Posted by: Outis on July 24, 2008 at 8:13 AM | PERMALINK

We're in George W. stupid territory here:

I'm not sure people understand that 'surge' is part of a counterinsurgency.

Just like "dumb" is a part of "adumbration" and "liar" is part of "familiarity" and "bullshit" is, well, bullshit.

Posted by: R. Porrofatto on July 24, 2008 at 8:21 AM | PERMALINK

What about the elephant in the room? If Basra is the example to follow, why is the British troop withdrawal not recognized or mentioned as a critical part of any success.

If Basra is held up as the end all be all, shouldn't we be looking to replicate it by some measure.

Posted by: justmy2 on July 24, 2008 at 8:30 AM | PERMALINK

Orwell: Obama is wrong - the increased number of US forces in the area put all of the improved steps into motion.
Orwell, Obama said that the surge was one of a number of factors. Which part of "complex situation" is hard to understand? My guess would be that it's the "complex" that gives you trouble.

The surge was the motivation that the "cut-n-run" progressives wanted to happen by leaving Iraq
Huh?

I've said this before. If you use the name of one of our greatest writers, 1. don't lie, and 2. write coherent sentences.

Thank you, and have a nice day.

Posted by: thersites on July 24, 2008 at 8:32 AM | PERMALINK

"Face it - Barak will not be able to bring soldiers home. Nixon had the stomach for it, Obama don't."

Straight from the RNC... Expect to see more of this. Attack the candidate's strengths.

Posted by: tripoley on July 24, 2008 at 9:08 AM | PERMALINK

Is this really the new McCain slogan? "McCain '08- you can't spell counterinsurgency without surge!"

Posted by: SP on July 24, 2008 at 9:20 AM | PERMALINK

The worry about returning Mahdi Army coming back and actually fighting is likely to depend on whether or not Maliki f*cks over the HUGE numbers of Sadr supporters by engineering, via subterfuge and political/legal manipulations, losses for Sadr's party in elections.

They keep putting off the vote and putting off the vote, obviously trying to do SOMETHING to prevent the inevitable (in a free and fair election): a massive Sadrite win.

I look forward to the Iraqi election and massive Sadr wins. That will kill off any remaining Friedman-ite unregulated capitalism crap forced upon the Iraqis by the US during the early occupation under Bremer. It will reverse privatization (and selling off) oil rights to foreigners. It will prevent the neocon/neoliberal fantasy of a capitalist's cum dream in Iraq. It will give Iraq, truly, back to the Iraqi people themselves rather than to international corporations and local robber-barons.

Posted by: Praedor Atrebates on July 24, 2008 at 9:24 AM | PERMALINK

I dunno. I think we can say that freedom and democracy are incompatible with corruption and multiculturalism, so we can look forward to "eight more years" of occupation if McClone is elected, God forbid, or instability or a reverting to strongman, one party, anti-Crusader/Zionist rule if Obama is elected, God forbid.

Posted by: Luther on July 24, 2008 at 9:48 AM | PERMALINK

For those wanting to listen to the Obama speech, it is available on the Obama site.

Posted by: Cornfields on July 24, 2008 at 10:03 AM | PERMALINK

Of course Obama is right. And of course McCain is trying to rewrite history and flush the truth down the memory hole. "It's what they do..it's all they do." (h/t Terminator). It's simply a matter of whether the media will continue to permit him to do so - "Signs point to Yes" (h/t Magic 8-ball)

Posted by: ckelly on July 24, 2008 at 10:36 AM | PERMALINK

Still, Youssef is pretty clearly saying here that of course Obama is right when he says there are multiple reasons for the reduction in violence in Iraq, including not just the surge, but also the Sunni Awakening and the Mahdi Army ceasefires.

Yes, but "The Surge® is responsible for all happiness everywhere and brought the planets into alignment and anyone who won't SIEG HEIL to The Surge® is a big poopyhead" is now part of the conservative catechism, so it's moot.

Conservatives are now required to be too stupid to know the facts on the ground in order to be real conservatives. We've seen this before.
.

Posted by: Grand Moff Texan on July 24, 2008 at 10:37 AM | PERMALINK

Does this mean anything to anyone else? I can't make any sense of it.

It doesn't have to make sense, it's conservative. It has the words "surge" and "cut-n-run", so that makes it true even though it's meaningless.

Pretty soon, conservatives will only be able to communicate with each other through vibrations in their own drool.
.

Posted by: Grand Moff Texan on July 24, 2008 at 10:40 AM | PERMALINK

There is a legitimate argument that Obama was right and McCain (and virtually all democrats except to left wing of the party) was wrong about Iraq War II in the first place (although it is very hard to determine since we don't know the final outcome in Iraq and we have no way of knowing what evils Saddam and his heirs would have inflicted upon the world if left in power).

But even if you think the war was a mistake, it is hard to give too much credit to Obama for opposing it because, realistically, with the left wing that he was involved with in Chicago politics, there was no way he could have supported the war and maintained his political viability.

And, an objective observor, would need to concede that he was likely wrong about the surge and he certainly is now stubbornly claiming he was right, citing rationales that he never cited at the time, e.g., the economy, health care, etc. as better subjects for the money. At time, he clearly said the surge would not reduce the violence, it might increse the violence, and the "civil war" could not be stopped through the surge.

[Brian, you have overlooked signing several of your posts today, but I am not too busy right now so I will go back and do that for you. Try to remember in the future, I don't usually have time to fix your oversights. --Mod]

Posted by: brian on July 24, 2008 at 10:46 AM | PERMALINK

And, an objective observor, would need to concede

Well that's the strategy, isn't it?

At time, he clearly said the surge would not reduce the violence, it might increse the violence

Which it did, for a time, remember?

It's easy to accuse someone of being wrong, simply because they won't agree with you when you don't know what you're talking about.
.

Posted by: Grand Moff Texan on July 24, 2008 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

Obama's BIG problem is that, after 3 and a half years of mismanagement by the White House, Iraq's growing insurgency was turned over to Petraeus, and things started to get better. This is going to cause Obama to lose the election. But there is a long way to go, no one knows what will happen -- and whether the Iraq government can become truly for all Iraqis, and whether the people in the U.S. can slog it out another 5 years, are the two biggest unknowns. If Obama is smart he will use this trip to come back and educate his own supporters, saying "I made a mistake about the surge, I don't want to be like George Bush and sit in my own ignorance for years, I think Petraeus may be right about this, we will play it by ear." Otherwise McCain is going to win. Which would be a shame, because Obama's economic policies are better than McCain's by a long long country mile. The surge cannot be credited with the originations of this (brief?) turnaround in Iraq, which are the Sunni Awakenings and the Sadrist ceasefire, but the surge definitely aided the former and made friends, and took advantage of the latter in helping to get Iraqi defense going.

Posted by: Lee A. Arnold on July 24, 2008 at 11:10 AM | PERMALINK

Obama's BIG problem is that, after 3 and a half years of mismanagement by the White House, Iraq's growing insurgency was turned over to Petraeus, and things started to get better.

Which Obama has already acknowledged.

Since Obama has already said what you say he needed to say, I'm guessing that you're David Brooks. It's a unique kind of stupid.
.

Posted by: Grand Moff Texan on July 24, 2008 at 11:16 AM | PERMALINK

In ConservativeWorld, we just have to keep killing and killing and killing and killing or we will be perceived as "weak" and then we will have "lost", whatever that means. Got it??

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on July 24, 2008 at 11:17 AM | PERMALINK

Grand Moff,

I clicked on the link and read some of your Kos diary. I see a spirited defense of Obama's web site, but I don't see where "Obama already said what he needs to say" as pointed out by Mr. Arnold.

I think Mr. Arnold raises an important point. One important way Obama can distinguish himself from the current administration is to demonstrate the ability to say, "I used to think this, but I was mistaken. Here's how I learned." I haven't seen that yet.

Posted by: on July 24, 2008 at 11:40 AM | PERMALINK

oops -- me at 11:40

Posted by: thersites on July 24, 2008 at 11:44 AM | PERMALINK

I don't see where "Obama already said what he needs to say" as pointed out by Mr. Arnold.

It's there, twice.

Hey, look! Here it is again:

Before: At great cost, our troops have helped reduce violence in some areas of Iraq ....

After: Our troops have heroically helped reduce civilian casualties in Iraq to early 2006 levels. This is a testament to our military’s hard work, improved counterinsurgency tactics, and enormous sacrifice by our troops and military families.

As for the rest of the conditions on the ground today, the Iraqis agree with Obama that there are multiple causes.

So, there's no reason for Obama to play into McCain's rhetoric, that The Surge® alone created things as they are now. McCain is only using the rhetoric of The Surge® to make his former record "go away," when McCain was a huge supporter of the war as it was.

McCain needs The Surge® in order to rewrite history. No one else has this problem.
.

Posted by: Grand Moff Texan on July 24, 2008 at 11:49 AM | PERMALINK

GMT, the "Before" and "After" say exactly the same thing, except After is a bit more fulsome in its praise of the troops. Nothing wrong with that. But that's not quite what Mr. Arnold was talking about.
And I don't see anyone asking Obama to deny that there are multiple causes for improved conditions.

But let's not fight. You, Mr. Arnold and I all agree that Obama should be elected, not McCain. We just have different ideas about what Obama's rhetoric should be.

Posted by: thersites on July 24, 2008 at 11:59 AM | PERMALINK

Thersites, I think you and I are reading Arnold differently. Read his first sentence, and then tell me specifically what Obama got wrong about The Surge®.

If this is going to be a "come to Jesus" moment, we're going to have to identify the sin first.
.

Posted by: Grand Moff Texan on July 24, 2008 at 12:01 PM | PERMALINK

On the end of fighting in Basra. Odd I think the answsers to your (Drum's) questions was very clear at the time. The Mahdi Army was not defeated in battle, they melted away. The cease fire was negotiated in Iran in negotiations mediated by the head of the al Quds brigade of the revolutionary guard. The key change in policy by a foreign country was Iran's decision to rein in al Sadr and not the surge.

OK now time for a google

"After Iraqi troops clashed with Shia militants in the southern city of Basra last March, the eventual ceasefire wasn't hammered out inside Iraq. Instead, the agreement was negotiated in Iran with the help of the commander of the Revolutionary GuardQuds Force."

from the fringe lefty mag "Newsweek" http://www.newsweek.com/id/144605.

Elapsed time 2 minutes. The extreme similarity of my version and Babak Dehghanpisheh's is not due to cheating. I typed from memory and *then* I googled. Mr Dehghanpisheh might be wrong, but the claim was stated very definitely in a very mainstream media source.

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on July 24, 2008 at 12:05 PM | PERMALINK

While we were talking, Thersites, McCain just moved the goal-posts again.

You see, it's no longer enough that Obama come crawling about whatever it was he supposedly got wrong.

No.

Now anyone who tries to talk sense about Iraq is a "litigator" who hates the troops.
.

Posted by: Grand Moff Texan on July 24, 2008 at 12:12 PM | PERMALINK

GM,
The situation is Iraq has improved. (Maybe only temporarily, but this is an election campaign, and we're talking about perception.)
The surge has been a factor in that. (Maybe only a minor factor but again, we're talking perception.)
What was Obama saying about the surge at the beginning? If he was saying then what he's saying now, then I'm wrong, and I apologize. Otherwise, he could do himself some good by demonstrating the ability to learn from observation and experience.

Posted by: thersites on July 24, 2008 at 12:13 PM | PERMALINK

Thers, looking at the news over the last week, the Iraqis agree with Obama both about how we got here (multiple factors, including the Surge®), and about where to go from here (timeline for withdrawal).

McCain's position, at least before he began changing it every five minutes (see above), is that we must credit The Surge® for every good thing in Iraq or we "hate the troops" ... or something.

So, not only does Obama not need to give on this at all, he'd be giving into a position that is ludicrous and dishonest. Why should anyone reward McCain's mendacious and cowardly behavior?
.

Posted by: Grand Moff Texan on July 24, 2008 at 12:21 PM | PERMALINK

I think you're missing the point I'm trying to make. It's not about pleasing McCain. It's about acknowledging the difference betwee what he might have said last year, and what he's saying now.

But I'm giving it a rest.

Posted by: thersites on July 24, 2008 at 12:49 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, Thers, that's your point (although I still don't see the error), but I'm talking about how it will play outside the vacuum of our discussion.
.

Posted by: Grand Moff Texan on July 24, 2008 at 12:55 PM | PERMALINK

I look forward to the Iraqi election and massive Sadr wins. That will kill off any remaining Friedman-ite unregulated capitalism crap forced upon the Iraqis by the US during the early occupation under Bremer. It will reverse privatization (and selling off) oil rights to foreigners.

...and if the history of the Middle East is any indication, that will cue a CIA-backed coup.

Posted by: Gregory on July 24, 2008 at 1:09 PM | PERMALINK

In ConservativeWorld, we just have to keep killing and killing and killing and killing or we will be perceived as "weak" and then we will have "lost", whatever that means. Got it??

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on July 24, 2008 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK

*

Posted by: mhr on July 24, 2008 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

Face it - Barak will not be able to bring soldiers home. Nixon had the stomach for it, Obama don't. Posted by: Orwell

He did? Why did it take four years then?

Posted by: Jeff II on July 24, 2008 at 2:03 PM | PERMALINK

Grand Moff Texan, in your linked July 17th entry at DailyKos you quote Obama as saying, "the absence of genuine political accommodation in Iraq is a direct result of President Bush’s failure to hold the Iraqi government accountable." Trouble is, the Sunni cabinet members (who are not quite the Anbar Awakening crowd) just rejoined the government (no doubt with lots of conditions) on July 20. This is an example of Obama taking positions where he has to start equivocating when the conditions change. Some of his interviews from Europe he looks like a deer caught in headlights. I just spoke to a couple of liberal Dems who volunteered that they are already sick of listening to him. He must definitely be sounding like a double-talker to conservative Dems, independents, and army families. Another example: consider the fact that the reduction in violence is now stalling: there is an uptick in bombings and killings. Is Obama going to stick to his timetable anyhow? This is going to be a political suicide. McCain won't even have to get his facts straight. Take a position you can stick to! Do you want to win this election?

Posted by: Lee A. Arnold on July 24, 2008 at 9:47 PM | PERMALINK

He's trying not to lose his left. Reality is that Obama and McCain are both part of the foreign policy establishment, and they are not even an inch apart on Iraq. McCain is going to start drawing down troops a little, and Obama isn't doing it in 16 months. But McCain is going to have him over a barrel in the debates if he doesn't do something fast. McCain makes factual mistakes as everybody does, but Obama is setting himself up to look like an equivocator, and that won't fly with the majority.

Posted by: Lee A. Arnold on July 24, 2008 at 11:21 PM | PERMALINK

"The surge is working" reminds me of another Republican catchphrase from a few years back: do you remember this one?

"Mission Accomplished"

Posted by: chris jay on July 25, 2008 at 4:59 PM | PERMALINK

OR, we could just see what OBAMA says:

Well, I think it is indisputable that we've seen violence reduced in Iraq. And that's a credit to our brave men and women in uniform. In fact, you know, the First Cavalry, out of Fort Hood, played an enormous role in pushing back al-Qaida out of Baghdad. [APPLAUSE] And, you know, we honor their service. But this is a tactical victory imposed upon a huge strategic blunder. [LAUGHTER] And I think that when we're having a debate with John McCain, it is going to be much easier for the candidate who was opposed to the concept of invading Iraq in the first place to have a debate about the wisdom of that decision [APPLAUSE] than having to argue about the tactics subsequent to the decision. [LAUGHTER]

(Debate with H. Clinton, February 21, 2008).

Posted by: not now on August 1, 2008 at 3:30 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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