Military Solutions

A quick followup to my earlier post in defense of undue pessimism. According to the common wisdom, it’s churlish to deny that the Surge in Iraq was successful. And I suppose it was successful if “the Surge” is used to refer to a time period rather than a tactic. But everyone who has followed the Iraq War closely knows that there was a convergence of factors that led to the improved security situation. The increased troop presence and changed tactics associated with the Surge were a prominent one, but it’s impossible to know for sure whether they were determinant. Even as a time period, there’s room for debate, because the decrease in casualties actually began in November 2006, around the time of the mid-term Congressional elections that represents the nadir of the Bush administration’s disastrous pre-Surge pursuit of the war effort.

On the other hand, as far as common wisdom goes, the Surge has become shorthand not only for success in Iraq, but more generally for the sense that no problem can resist a military solution once the appropriate strategy has been formulated and applied. I’m not referring here to the civilian or uniformed leadership of the military. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has repeatedly emphasized the fact that neither Iraq or Afghanistan represent problems that have a military solution. And even Gen. David Petraeus, who as a soldier must believe on some level that military intervention can successfully drive circumstances toward a favorable resolution, has expressed major caveats about the limits of what a military reponse can offer.

Now, I’ve argued previously that the fact that the U.S. will be able to withdraw its military from Iraq with its deterrent capacity intact is a very significant positive outcome of the past two years. So there are advantages to this perception of the Surge (i.e., American military agency) as being instrumental to the improved security in Iraq. But crediting the Surge with a success that everyone knows it was not solely responsible for risks repeating the same mistake that led to the necessity of a Surge in the first place. Namely, forgetting that a perfectly formulated military plan that is flawlessly executed — as Operation Iraqi Freedom was — might indeed achieve the desired results. It’s the unintended consequences, though, that will make it seem incredibly myopic in retrospect.

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