Politics & Policy

Bush Surge vs. Reid Surge

Reckless rhetoric can kill.

When Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, trekked to Damascus not too long ago to meet with the thug dictator of Syria, it occurred to me that she was essentially taking a page from a scene in The Godfather — the one in which Sonny dissents from a decision made by his father, Don Corleone, during a meeting with a representative of another mafia family. The representative — an assassin for the Tattaglias — immediately concludes that if the Don is eliminated, Sonny will take his place and cooperate. And sure enough, shortly thereafter, the Tattaglias attempt to assassinate the Don.

If “Sonny” Pelosi’s Syrian trip was ill-advised because of Assad’s likely perception that if he can wait out the Bush administration, he can make a better deal with the Democrats, how much worse was the widely reported statement last week by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid? According to news reports, Reid told journalists “I believe … that this war is lost, and this surge is not accomplishing anything, as is shown by the extreme violence in Iraq this week.”

America’s enemies in the Middle East certainly took note of Pelosi’s trip: the Arab press was full of favorable reports of the Speaker’s pilgrimage to Damascus. The Middle Eastern press has also, not surprisingly, taken note of Reid’s comments (which he tried to take back later in the day). So in addition to feeding defeatism in the United States and demoralizing the troops who are in Iraq (or soon to be on their way there), Reid has most likely encouraged our enemies in that unhappy place.

Our enemies know that the war that counts is the one for the American mind. If we believe that the war is lost, they win. They have an incentive to keep fighting and to kill as many people as they can. In a gun battle with American troops, the insurgents lose. So they concentrated on killing as many Iraqis as they can in the hope and expectation that the news will demoralize the American public.

Lincoln noted that in a democratic republic, “public sentiment” is critical. During the Civil War, Robert E. Lee was an assiduous reader of Northern newspapers. By 1864 he understood that the only hope for the Confederacy was that war weariness in the North would lead to Lincoln’s electoral defeat. The Confederates put a great deal of hope in the “Copperheads,” the so-called “Peace Democrats” who did everything possible to obstruct the Union war effort.

During Vietnam, the Tet Offensive of 1968 was a military defeat for the North Vietnamese communists, but a public-relations victory that helped turn the American public against the war. In audiotapes released by the insurgents over the last couple of years, their leaders such as the late and unlamented Abu Musab al-Zarqawi have demonstrated that they understand the lessons of Tet very well.

There’s no way to know for sure, but I believe that the bomb attacks in Iraq that caused such carnage in recent days are the expected consequences of the Democrats’ efforts to undercut the president’s new team and the changed strategy represented by the so-called “surge.” We know what the Bush surge is. I think a good name for the increasing body count in Iraq is the “Reid surge.”

As the debate over funding continues: Watch your rhetoric, senators.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.


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