The Surge in Iraq John McCain's Potemkin Village

Senator John McCain has built his presidential bid on the claim that the increase of the number of US military forces in Iraq, the Surge, has been a success. In his contribution to John C. Hulsman argues that by all political measures the Surge has been a failure - and that McCains foreign policy record needs to be reappraised.
By John C. Hulsman, Berlin

Supposedly, in 1787, a Russian courtier and general, Grigori Potemkin, set about fooling Russian elite opinion. As the recent conqueror of the Crimea, Potemkin had the difficult task of convincing the Czarina, Catherine the Great, that the newly won territory was a bastion of stability and prosperity. To make sure that Catherine's inspection tour was a success, Potemkin constructed hollow facades of houses, to mask the reality of the all-too-real miserable hovels the defeated Crimeans lived in following the war of conquest. Suitably impressed and wrongly convinced that Potemkin had easily pacified the region, the Czarina continued to patronize his career, whatever the reality. Incredibly, after all that has gone before, in John McCain's assertions that the American Surge in Iraq is "working," we are nearing such a delusional situation today.

McCain has made his foreign affairs expertise a certer piece of his campaign

Currently, the Republican nominee for President in traveling to Iraq for the eighth time. His visit coincides with the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war, and is symbolically meant to underline that the Surge, the addition of 30,000 American troops last year to the conflict, has led to success. Such a bold assertion is central to Senator McCain's run for the presidency.

While he cheerfully admits he knows next to nothing about economics, the Arizona Senator positions himself as a foreign policy expert, especially compared with the novice, Barack Obama, and the over-rated Hillary Clinton. He has made his expertise on foreign affairs the centerpiece of his campaign, a strategy that will once again push Iraq to the forefront of the American political debate come the fall.

He has been a champion of the Surge since its inception

To Senator McCain's credit, he has been entirely consistent. A champion of the Surge since its inception, he backed it when it was deeply unpopular. This support exposed him to experience the worst thing that can happen to a politician - open ridicule. Last April, Senator McCain toured a Baghdad market, hailing the progress toward stability that had been made in allowing him to stroll through the streets of Baghdad; it later emerged that he was being protected by 3 Black Hawk helicopters, 2 Apache Gunships, and 100 American soldiers. This dry run at creating a Potemkin village had failed ingloriously. But give the Senator credit; he did not give up.

Today, Senator McCain has begun to rise in the polls, compared with both Democratic frontrunners. This is primarily due to the fact that they continue to tear strips off one another, as their contest heads toward a World War I-style contest of attrition. However, it also involves Senator McCain's shift in the Iraq narrative. Where it was once seen as a political millstone around his neck, now it is emblematic of his tough, dogged pursuit of American interests; it is a vital reason for the Senator's rise.

Following a Clausewitzian spirit

On the surface Senator McCain has an argument. A new Pentagon study suggests that since the Surge began, there has been a 90 percent decrease in civilian casualties in Iraq, coupled with a 70 percent downtick for American troops. Surely that qualifies as a "success," does it not? But if you peel away this enticing façade, and look at what the Surge was actually meant to accomplish, a hollow shell of an argument is revealed.

The Surge planners were admirably clear about its goals. Echoing the great German military theoretician, von Clausewitz, they correctly wished to use military might to achieve specific political goals. After the unreality of the Rumsfeld years, this was surely an intellectual step in the right direction. The plan, focusing on Baghdad, was designed to give the indolent and faction-ridden Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a political boost, with the increase in stability giving him the breathing space necessary to accomplish a number of vital goals.

A practical failure

First, the Surge would allow Maliki and the Iraqi parliament to legally divide oil revenue between the center and the periphery (Kurds, Shia, and Sunni areas), thus routinizing the possession of Iraq's major economic asset. Second, the various militias of the major ethnic groups, ranging form the Kurdish Peshmerga to the Shia Badr Brigades, were to be disarmed. Third, restive Sunnis were to be brought into the government in Baghdad, in an effort to make the fledgling Iraqi government more legitimate. The planners of the mission were right to signal out these political goals; an Iraq with a routinized oil division, a central government with the monopoly of guns, and representing the three basic building blocs of Iraqi society, could well prove to be self-sustaining.

Lets look at the real track record of the Surge, based upon its own goals. Has there been a formal parliamentary division of oil rights? While informally much has been done, the answer is no. Without parliamentary sanction, any leasing rights given to foreign investors now could well be overturned in the future; economic uncertainty is the last thing the ruined Iraqi economy needs. Have militias been disarmed? The answer is laughable. Have the Sunnis been reintegrated into the central government? Not even close. So, clearly by the Surge's own yardstick, it has been a practical failure.

McCain's strategy seems to work

But, terrifyingly, perhaps a political success. While around two-thirds of Americans surveyed are weary of the war, a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll points to the amazing fact that 35 percent of those polled think McCain has the right approach to Iraq, compared with 30 percent supporting Clinton's stance, and 27 percent feeling Obama has the best Iraq policy.

These numbers are a political vindication of the Surge. Once again, a Potemkin village strategy seems to be working. Expect the McCain forces, more and more, to act as if there is no debate about the Surge's "success," so central is this bogus fact to their candidate's chances. It is up to those of us that govern, the American people, to do what the Czarina failed to do - to assess the Surge by its own yardstick, looking beneath the façade and squarely at the grimy reality of Iraq. Failure to do so will merely make a great tragedy even worse.

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