By DAVID BROOKS NY Times
June 24, 2008
Let’s go back and consider how the world looked in the winter of 2006-2007. Iraq was in free fall, with horrific massacres and ethnic cleansing that sent a steady stream of bad news across the world media. The American public delivered a stunning electoral judgment against the Iraq war, the Republican Party and President Bush.
Expert and elite opinion swung behind the Baker-Hamilton report, which called for handing more of the problems off to the Iraqi military and wooing Iran and Syria. Republicans on Capitol Hill were quietly contemptuous of the president while Democrats were loudly so.
Democratic leaders like Senator Harry Reid considered the war lost. Barack Obama called for a U.S. withdrawal starting in the spring of 2007, while Senator Reid offered legislation calling for a complete U.S. pullback by March 2008.
The arguments floating around the op-ed pages and seminar rooms were overwhelmingly against the idea of a surge — a mere 20,000 additional troops would not make a difference. The U.S. presence provoked violence, rather than diminishing it. The more the U.S. did, the less the Iraqis would step up to do. Iraq was in the middle of a civil war, and it was insanity to put American troops in the middle of it.
When President Bush consulted his own generals, the story was much the same. Almost every top general, including Abizaid, Schoomaker and Casey, were against the surge. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was against it, according to recent reports. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki called for a smaller U.S. presence, not a bigger one.
In these circumstances, it’s amazing that George Bush decided on the surge. And looking back, one thing is clear: Every personal trait that led Bush to make a hash of the first years of the war led him to make a successful decision when it came to this crucial call.
Bush is a stubborn man. Well, without that stubbornness, that unwillingness to accept defeat on his watch, he never would have bucked the opposition to the surge.
Bush is an outrageously self-confident man. Well, without that self-confidence he never would have overruled his generals.
In fact, when it comes to Iraq, Bush was at his worst when he was humbly deferring to the generals and at his best when he was arrogantly overruling them. During that period in 2006 and 2007, Bush stiffed the brass and sided with a band of dissidents: military officers like David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno, senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and outside strategists like Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute and Jack Keane, a retired general.
Bush is also a secretive man who listens too much to Dick Cheney. Well, the uncomfortable fact is that Cheney played an essential role in promoting the surge. Many of the people who are dubbed bad guys actually got this one right.
The additional fact is that Bush, who made such bad calls early in the war, made a courageous and astute decision in 2006. More than a year on, the surge has produced large, if tenuous, gains. Violence is down sharply. Daily life has improved. Iraqi security forces have been given time to become a more effective fighting force. The Iraqi government is showing signs of strength and even glimmers of impartiality. Iraq has moved from being a failed state to, as Vali Nasr of the Council on Foreign Relations has put it, merely a fragile one.
The whole episode is a reminder that history is a complicated thing. The traits that lead to disaster in certain circumstances are the very ones that come in handy in others. The people who seem so smart at some moments seem incredibly foolish in others.
The cocksure war supporters learned this humbling lesson during the dark days of 2006. And now the cocksure surge opponents, drunk on their own vindication, will get to enjoy their season of humility. They have already gone through the stages of intellectual denial. First, they simply disbelieved that the surge and the Petraeus strategy was doing any good. Then they accused people who noticed progress in Iraq of duplicity and derangement. Then they acknowledged military, but not political, progress. Lately they have skipped over to the argument that Iraq is progressing so well that the U.S. forces can quickly come home.
But before long, the more honest among the surge opponents will concede that Bush, that supposed dolt, actually got one right. Some brave souls might even concede that if the U.S. had withdrawn in the depths of the chaos, the world would be in worse shape today.
Life is complicated. The reason we have democracy is that no one side is right all the time. The only people who are dangerous are those who can’t admit, even to themselves, that obvious fact.