Measuring Success of the Surge
Bernard Finel quips that, “The ‘success’ of the surge is like winning a pie eating contest where is the prize is… more pie.” That’s a good line, regardless of where you stand on Iraq.
More seriously, he tries to come up with metrics for defining “success” and observes,
We are now precisely back where we started, though at 2005 levels of violence rather than 2006. I don’t think anyone back in 2005 was really happy about progress in Iraq, so it is not clear to me why anyone would be happy now.
I’m not sure that’s right. Violence ratcheted up in Iraq after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and AQI managed to turn an uncoordinated anti-Coalition insurgency into sectarian violence with the al-Askari Mosque bombing and other incidents. Until that happened, there were real signs of political progress in Iraq, with two reasonably successful elections, recognition of basic human rights and religious tolerance, and so forth.
Violence is down for a host of reasons, not least of which is the Sunnis turning against AQI and a general sense of combat fatigue. If we can get back on the path we were on in 2005, then, there’s hope of turning a corner.
In his opening statement earlier today, General Petraeus stated that, “In the coming months, Iraq leaders must strengthen governmental capacity, execute budgets, pass additional legislation, conduct provincial elections, carry out a census, determine the status of disputed territories, and resettle internally displaced persons and refugees.” If those things happen, the Surge will have been a success; if they don’t, it won’t.
No doubt, we continue to kick the ball down the road, pleading for another six months (One more Friedman!) to assess the situation. Inevitably, the result is that we need another six months. If things are looking up, it shows that we’re on the right track; if things are getting worse, it shows that we can’t afford to pull out and leave the Iraqis without help. It’s not clear, though, that there’s an appealing alternative.
UPDATE: Finel responds that a wonkish interest in details obscures larger truths. in this case, “Iraq is already, even with all the violence and divisions, in the middle of the pack of Arab states in terms of political health. We have accomplished virtually all we can ever reasonably hope to accomplish in Iraq. At this point, we are staying in Iraq because it is a commitment trap.”
He’s certainly right that plenty of other Arab states have issues with corruption, political violence, and radical Islamists. It’s unreasonable to hope that, if we just work hard enough, we’ll turn Iraq into Sweden. Still, we set the wheels in motion here and have some responsibility to finish what we’ve started. Is that a commitment trap? Sure. But the “trap” exists.
Classically, game theorists applied the notion to nuclear war and mutually assured destruction. The theory was that a leader would have to honor his pre-announced commitment to retaliate to a nuclear strike in kind in order to preserve credibility and thus deter future attacks. This has, obviously, never been tested.
In the Iraqi case, the argument is both that we have a moral obligation to those who have literally risked their lives in making common cause with us and that, if we don’t do that, we’ll have difficulty getting others to trust us in future interventions. As with the nuclear case, it’s unprovable in the abstract but seems intuitively compelling.