Is it Really Too Early to Call the Surge a Success?

Judah writes that “We still don’t know how the final chapter on the Surge will turnout, because we still don’t know how the final chapter on Iraq willturn out.” I agree with the second part of the sentence, but not the first.

Declaring the Surge a success need not wait until the final chapter of the story of the entire war is written.

That, it seems to me, is akin to arguing, for example, that the validity of the original decision to go to war should only be judged against the ultimate failure or success of the war. (If the United States and its Iraqi allies eventually “win” the Iraq war, that won’t change the fact that the decision to go to war amounted to betting too much American blood, treasure and prestige on a very risky game.)

By the same token, the success of the Surge decision should be measured against the likely consequences of the alternative course that existed at the time of the decision. As the Brooks column that Judah referenced notes, the only credible alternative that was being offered at the time was a very quick pullback.

In the wake of the Surge, Iraq has a vastly better chance ofbecoming a relatively stable, free and prosperous democracy than it hada few short months ago. Even if it’s not clear that the increase in U.S. troops itself was directly responsible for all of the progress that occurred simultaneous with it, it does seem clear that pursuing the alternative course of a pullout would have all but foreclosed the possibility of any kind of “victory.”

To go back to the gambling analogy then, the Surge was a small bet that seems to have erased much of the strategic deficit, real or perceived, of those dark days of the winter of 2006-2007. Whether or not we end up deep in the hole again after the game is at its end is a separate question from whether or not placing this particular bet at this particular time was the right move.

To formulate it another way, those who argue that it’s not yet clear that the Surge was a success must be able to credibly say that, having known in January 2007 what they know now about its success so far, they still would have been against the Surge. I don’t imagine that, with the benefit of foreknowledge, most opponents of the Surge — or at least those who were concerned more with U.S. interests than with political point-scoring — would have been.

But maybe Judah and I are talking about two different measures of success: one that says the wisdom of any action must be judged against some omnipotent tally of all its consequences into the endless future, and another that takes into account the empirical straitjacket that bounds human decision-making. Against the first kind of yardstick, if the war eventually is lost, then no decision that prolonged its end could ever be judged correct. But even the verdict of history is usually not so unsparing, so we shouldn’t be now.