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Surge Dialectics


There is some controversy in regard to the recent Rumsfeld NY Times op-ed about the surge, namely suggestions by some that Rumsfeld in Johnny-come-lately fashion was seemingly trying to take credit for the success of the surge, by citing in his essay his own support, as his tenure ended, for the Petraeus appointment and the dispatch of additional troops.

As I understand the spirited complaint, it is not based on a refutation of those facts per se (i.e., that Rumsfeld at the close of his tenure both supported the Petraeus appointment and the dispatch of more troops). Instead the implication is, I think, a paper trail notwithstanding, that he perhaps did so either reluctantly, or only when forced by outside pressure, or at the 11th-hour doing something in tardy fashion that should have been done years earlier, or simply did not stand in the way when he should have provided more forceful advocacy. (e.g. Pete Wehner: “There are a handful of individuals–including Jack Keane, Raymond Odierno, David Petraeus, Ryan Crocker, Fred Kagan, Stephen Hadley, and the President– who deserve credit for the turnabout. Donald Henry Rumsfeld is not one of them.“)

I read carefully the NY Times piece and yet did not come away with the impression that Rumsfeld was trying to take credit for the brilliant generalship of Petraeus or the selfless and inspired work of Fred Kagan and Gen. Keane et al. as well as the courage of Crocker, Hadley and others (e.g., Rumsfeld: “General Petraeus and his deputy, Gen. Ray Odierno, had the experience and skill to recognize and exploit the seismic shifts that were taking place in Iraq’s political landscape. And United States troops had the courage to win the alliance of Iraq’s people against a common enemy — and the benevolence to win their friendship. At the critical moment — a moment when the Iraqis were able and willing to be part of the surge with the American forces — the United States surged into Iraq with the right commanders, additional forces and a fresh operational approach rooted in years of on-the-ground experience. Americans can be proud of what has been accomplished in Iraq over the last five-plus years. They should also be impressed by the results of the surge, which, thus far, has outstripped expectations, including mine.” [emphasis added].

Instead, the thrust of the op-ed seemed to be more a warning that repeating the successful formula in Iraq might not be so easy in Afghanistan, given the radically different conditions. Most would agree I think.

At this point, the nature and assessment of the surge will be left to historians who will review calls in 2004-5 for surges in impossibly high numbers (such as 80,000-100,000 more troops), and whether a surge of the sort that worked in 2007 could have been equally successful in 2003-4, and the actual positions of Bremmer, Sanchez and Abizaid, and dozens of others. In the same manner we will sort out the rapid inspired victories over the Taliban and Saddam, the problems that followed, and the ongoing restructuring of the military between 2001-6. Somewhere around 2108 a consensus will probably emerge.

But until then, I would point out that Gen. Petraeus himself has always been singuarly magnanimous, and suggested that his Iraq success was a combination of (a) his own role in advocating more troops to ensure brave Iraqis security; (b) novel counter-insurgency tactics; (c) the Anbar awakening; (d) the renewed signal we were aiming at victory not withdrawal;–and (e) the cumulative, aggregate losses of the insurgents during the dark years of 2003-6 (see Bing West especially on the sometimes unheralded lethality of the Marines and others in those now sometimes forgotten days); (f) the fruition of the Iraqi security force increases and professionalization began in 2003 (cf. here Petraeus’s own prior work); (g) the astronomical rise in oil prices, and the huge revenue that ensued for Iraqi coffers. Petraeus has often made it clear that much of our success is owed to Gen. Casey and especially officers in the field who by hard experience figured a way to win in impossible circumstances. Despite reasons to have an oversized ego, Petraeus has seemed to me to be one of the most self-effacing military heroes in American history (cf. in contrast, a MacArthur, Patton, LeMay, etc.)

Petraeus was clearly the right man for the right job at the right time, and Kagan and Keane and Co. (and McCain on the political side) were back home the essential D.C. catalysts (e.g., They would have all been viciously blamed and demonized, had the surge, as many on the campaign trail were then predicting, utterly failed); yet I don’t think any of them ever suggested that American success in Iraq quite came ex nihilo. To my mind, the departure of Bremmer and Sanchez, and the critical growing influence of Crocker will be seen as seminal as well.

All this is a common crux in military history. LeMay saved the notion of B-29 strategic bombing, by radically changing tactics to suit new conditions, but also by inheriting a crack bomber force trained by the relieved Haywood S. Hansell who preferred refining existing precision bombing and avoiding incendiary attacks. Grant’s brilliance and doggedness saved the war in the east, but by March,1864 the Army of the Potomac he inherited was not the rag-tag force of 1862 and the Army of Northern Virginia was, post-Gettysburg, not the brilliant manifestation of an unbeatable Robert E. Lee. We still argue over precisely the initial position of Grant, Thomas, and Lincoln on the widely successful but controversial Sherman proposal to march through Georgia.

In short, in rereading the Rumsfeld op-ed, I guess I didn’t see anything there incompatible with giving full credit where it was due to Petraeus, Crocker, Keane, Kagan, et al., while pointing out that as secretary of defense he struggled with all sorts of complex choices that now lead him to believe that Afghanistan may well be the tougher challenge, and not necessarily so amenable to a fresh surge of more American troops.