Petraeus and his pyrrhic surge

It is not often that an author displays himself at his most perceptive and his most gullible. David Petraeus, in explaining the success of the Iraqi ‘surge’, incisively captures the central problem that has faced Iraq since Ottoman times:

“The heart of the struggle in Iraq was a competition for power and resources between the major factions in the country — the majority Shiite Arabs and the minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds. (There were subfactions of each group as well, of course, in addition to other minority sects and ethnicities such as Turkoman, Yezidis, and Iraqi Christians, among others.)”

Petraeus is quite right. The heart of the problem of Iraqi politics back in 2006 (and before that in 1956 and 1906) is the fact that every subsequent regime has had to rely on highly personalized networks founded on self-interest. This is a feature that has dominated the political scene ever since urbanization in the 19th century moved rural political structures into the urban landscape. Its importance grew exponentially once oil production took off, allowing for vast sums of cash to be dealt to faithful clients – many of whom of course would be linked in some way to the military. And it was this central aspect of Iraqi politics which was perfected to the utmost degree by Saddam Hussein.

In light of this, it is rather astonishing to read Petraeus lecturing current leaders on “the way forward” as follows:

“As Iraqi leaders consider the way forward, they would do well to remember what had to be done the last time the levels of violence escalated so terribly. If Iraqi leaders think back to that time, they will recall that the surge was not just more forces, though the additional forces were very important. What mattered most was the surge of ideas…”

If it were the first order of business for Iraqi leaders to “consider the way forward”, then indeed they might heed Petraeus’s call to the “surge of ideas”. Unfortunately, it is quite probable that the first thing on the mind of a new Iraqi leader, rather than the future of his country, is how he is going to avoid execution. Nuri Al-Said, Abd al-Karim Qasim and Saddam Hussein are just a few names of Iraqi leaders whose ambition caught up with them eventually. The only sure way outrunning ambition has proven to be a reliance on one’s own clan and a subsidiary network of clients. That this is still perceived to be the case is quite clear from this excellent online biography of Nouri al-Maliki.  Apparently, blood really does run thicker than water, even in the land of the two rivers.

Petraeus apparently thinks that it would be enough for all the different groups involved to lay off their narrow focus on money and power and agree on their common future. What he neglects is a more fundamental reality facing Iraqi leaders. Their choice is not one between power and ethics, it is one between power and death. Not playing along with the age old game of Iraqi politics, that of garnering support among a sufficiently large group of clients and extended family, severely increases the odds of short term demise. The only reason that Petraeus was able to bring different leaders together was the fact that the presence of an American army provided enough of an assurance that no single leader was going to be marginalized to a point where he had to fear for his life. With this assurance gone, all bets are off, and Iraq is reverting to its natural state.

The surge might have been a tactical success, it was a strategic failure. Lacking the commitment to stick around indefinitely, the proper course for the US would have been to cut its losses and get the hell out. For, historically in Iraqi politics the only option is to go all-in. The only reason that the US did not follow this strategy – to stay or to get out – was that the rationale for its non-commital temporary (and thus futile) pacification was not inspired by a concern for Iraq’s future, but by one for Bush’s legacy. In an effort to clean up the one mess that would come to define his presidency, Bush decided to go ahead with the surge strategy in 2007. He must have done so knowing fully well that American commitment to maintaining a military presence in Iraq was dwindling and that with the prospect of a democratic anti-war president a follow-up on his strategy would be highly uncertain. Considering this it is quite startling for a man like Petraeus to tout his campaign as a success. Perhaps his name will be taken up in the annals of successful counterinsurgency strategists. Perhaps, like Bush, that will be enough to balance out some of the blemishes on his personal legacy. But certainly, that will not change anything about the course Iraq is headed in right now.


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