History’s Judgment: The Iraq Surge Failed
Image Credit: DOD photo by U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Aaron Hostutler

History’s Judgment: The Iraq Surge Failed


Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing in January 2013 was tense from beginning to end. Yet one of the more hostile moments of the roughly eight hour hearing occurred when Senator John McCain’s (R-AZ) questioned Hagel’s position on the Iraq surge.

McCain had come upon the issue because when it was first announced in 2007, then-Senator Hagel had called it “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.” Now, in early 2013, McCain—a staunch proponent of the surge—wanted to know if Hagel’s views had changed with time.

The exchange began with:

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Sen. MCCAIN: Were you correct in your assessment [from 2007]?

Mr. HAGEL: Well, I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out, but I’ll —

Sen. MCCAIN: I think — we — committee deserves your judgment as to whether you were right or wrong about the surge.

Mr. HAGEL: I’ll explain why I made those comments, and I believe I had, but —

Sen. MCCAIN: I want to know if you were right or wrong. That’s a direct question. I expect a direct answer.

Mr. HAGEL: The surge assisted in the objective. But if we review the record a little bit —

Sen. MCCAIN: Will you please answer the question? Were you correct or incorrect when you said that the surge would be the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam? Were you correct or incorrect?

The exchange continued like this for a tense couple of minutes. McCain repeatedly demanded Hagel give a yes or no answer, while Hagel demurred by saying the issue was too complicated for a one-word answer. After the former Senate colleagues went back and forth for some time, Hagel repeated: “my answer is I’ll defer that judgment to history,” to which McCain responded: “I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you’re on the wrong side of it.”

By saying he would “defer that judgment to history” multiple times, Hagel was trying to illustrate a larger point. Namely, that it was still too early to conclude whether the Iraq surge had succeeded based on the goals George W. Bush had established for it back in 2007 (It’s not unreasonable to assume that in a more open environment, Hagel might have pointed out that at the time it appeared to be failing.)

With Iraq unraveling this week after deteriorating for years, it’s probably safe to say that history has rendered its judgment on the surge. It failed.

That’s at least the conclusion one must draw if going by the metrics of success laid out by the Bush administration at the time the surge was announced. The logic of the surge was fairly straight forward: political reconciliation between Iraq’s main factions—the Kurds, Shi’ites, and Sunnis—would be impossible so long as the sectarian civil war raged on. By deploying a temporary surge of U.S. troops in and around Baghdad, and having them focus on protecting the population, the U.S. and its partners could reduce the violence enough to give Iraqi leaders the necessary space to reach a political reconciliation.

The major benchmarks of success announced at the time were:

  1. Hold provincial elections. This was seen as necessary because the Sunnis were boycotting national elections and it was believed that by giving them some representation at the provincial level (along with arming them) they could be persuaded to rejoin the political process and ultimately accept a democracy in which they were the permanent minority.
  2. Complete de-Ba’athification reform law. The original de-Ba’athification law had disqualified even low level civil servants, who under Saddam Hussein’s reign were overwhelmingly Sunni. Reforming the law would allow these Sunnis to receive government jobs again, giving them a stake in the state’s survival.
  3. Convene a Constitutional Review Committee to revise the constitution because it failed to address crucial issues and the Sunnis opposed it in its then-current form.
  4. Pass a national hydrocarbon sharing law that would divide Iraq’s oil revenues in a manner that was acceptable to the Kurds, Shi’ites, and Sunnis.

To the surge’s credit, many of these benchmarks were ostensibly met at one time, although many were rolled back in practice later on. However, these benchmarks were really just ways to measure progress towards the ultimate goal of political reconciliation. The end goal was creating a unified Iraq where the three major societal groups in Iraq could at least tolerate each other enough to buy into the political process. That was the objective the U.S. was hoping to achieve by surging U.S. troops in 2007. And by that measurement, the surge has most certainly failed.

Three points are worth making however. First, Bush’s decision to surge troops in Iraq in 2007 was an extraordinary display of the kind of bold, decisive leadership that is so rare in American (and many other) political systems these days. Nearly everyone was diametrically opposed to the surge—members of Congress from both parties, the American public, Bush’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and even Bush’s commander on the ground in Iraq at the time.

True, certain members of the retired and active military, Bush’s national security staff and, to a lesser degree, the State Department, were in favor of the surge strategy. Still, Bush was essentially taking his enormous and risky decision on his own. Failure would have been his alone. Whether you agree or disagree with the policy or its outcome, this was a true display of leadership.

Second, even though the Iraq Surge failed by its own definition of success, I would argue it was the right call—by a long shot. Had the U.S. withdrawn in 2007, it would have left Iraq in the midst of a brutal civil war that it had sparked by invading the country in 2003, and dismantling the old state. The surge gave the Iraqis the opportunity to forge a better future for themselves and their posterity. They may fail in this task, and America won’t be entirely blameless if they do. But at least the U.S. gave them an opportunity to succeed. At the very least, the blame is not America’s alone anymore.

Just as important, had the U.S. withdrew in 2007, the military would have likely suffered the same type (but not degree) of demoralization that afflicted it following the Vietnam War. The tactical success of the surge prevented this outcome. The military left Iraq rightly proud of what it had accomplished.

Finally, the attempts—including by those who were the strongest proponents of the war in 2003—to blame Iraq’s current state on President Obama alone are disingenuous. The true origins of Iraq’s current disaster must be traced at least as far back as Saddam’s brutal rule, the U.S. invasion in 2003, and the early decisions to completely dismantle the Iraqi state (which Sunnis controlled) and build a new one (which Shi’ites would control). Leaving a residual force behind might have delayed by the current crisis by temporarily restraining Iraqis’ sectarian impulses. However, given political realities in Iraq and the U.S., Americans couldn’t have stayed there indefinitely.

And because of those realities, the surge ultimately failed because the goal of true political reconciliation was unrealistic. In most of the world, sectarian, ethnic, linguistic and/or tribal allegiances run deep, which is why most of the world’s most stable democracies are found in relatively homogeneous societies. That being said, sectarian identities become pathological when a brutal dictator from the minority faction spends decades ruling over and terrorizing the majority population. No foreign power invaded Syria, and it is in worse shape than Iraq.

No residual force could rewire the Iraqis, and thus leaving one behind would just have delayed the inevitable.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief