Gen. David Petraeus says the Iraq war is going well, and I believe him. I believe him the way I believe the coach of a perennial football doormat who, every August, assures fans he expects a winning season. Coaches don’t get paid to admit they’re bound to lose, and generals who are tasked with military missions don’t get paid to announce that they can’t get the job done.
Petraeus is, by all accounts, an experienced, capable and intelligent commander. So when he says that "the security situation in Iraq is improving," the natural impulse is to trust his battle-seasoned judgment. The Bush administration encourages this notion by suggesting that the opinions of military commanders are the only sound guide to policy.
But if high-ranking military officers are a good barometer of the future, I have a question: Where are the generals who told Americans when things were about to get worse in Iraq, as they have over and over? Which of them warned that insurgent attacks would steadily proliferate in 2005, after elections that were supposed to quell violence? What guy with stars on his shoulders forecast that Iraqi civilian deaths would double over the course of 2006?
Who told us that last year’s military strategy of "clear and hold" would fail — as even the administration admitted afterward that it had? Who predicted that the average number of Americans killed each month this year would be 34 percent higher than last year?
Not the top brass, which has consistently taken an optimistic public stance since the beginning. In November 2003, Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, said achieving victory would require hard work but said "it will be done." In November 2004, Marine Lt. Gen. John Sattler said we had "broken the back of the insurgency." In March 2006, Abizaid assured us, "We are winning." Three years ago, Petraeus himself said that "18 months after entering Iraq, I see tangible progress."
Despite all these cheery soundings, things didn’t improve. That’s why this year, the administration was forced to increase our troop strength in Iraq by nearly 25 percent in a desperate attempt to reverse the debacle. If the generals had been right about trends in the past, the surge would not have been needed.
Petraeus once again detects signs of progress, but it all depends on your definition of "better." His graphs and charts indicate that insurgent attacks and Iraqi civilian deaths have declined significantly since December 2006. What he doesn’t mention is that they are still higher than they were in the first three years of the war.
By March 2006, 60 percent of Americans said the war was going poorly. Yet all Petraeus claims to have done is lower the carnage to the level it was then — a level most people found unacceptable. If this is progress, then treading water should be an Olympic event.
Likewise, his plan to withdraw 30,000 troops by next summer would merely mean reverting to the number we had before the surge. Assuming he’s right, we’ll have spent a year and a half making an arduous journey from Point A to Point A.
It’s not even clear his figures can be believed. Numbers provided by the Iraqi government, according to the Los Angeles Times, indicate that the slaughter of Iraqi civilians has actually grown since the surge began. An Associated Press count determined that the civilian death toll in August was the second-highest monthly total this year.
Given all the talk about subsiding violence, you’d expect Iraqis to notice. But a new poll conducted by ABC News, the BBC and the Japanese broadcaster NHK found that only 11 percent of Iraqis think overall security is better today than it was before the surge. Even in Anbar province, commonly hailed as our greatest success, 62 percent of locals say the situation is bad.
If confident predictions by generals could be taken as gospel, this war would have been over long ago. But the totality of evidence gives no more reason to think we will do any better in the future than in the past. Given the choice, it’s better to have commanders who believe they can overcome any adversity than commanders who are easily discouraged. But sometimes, as we have learned repeatedly in Iraq, optimism is just another word for self-delusion.