There are lessons to be learned from the dazzling success of the surge strategy in Iraq.
Lesson one is that just about no mission is impossible for the United States military. A year ago it was widely thought, not just by the new Democratic leaders in Congress but also in many parts of the Pentagon, that containing the violence in Iraq was impossible. Now we have seen it done.
We have seen this before in American history. George Washington’s forces seemed on the brink of defeat many times in the agonizing years before Yorktown. Abraham Lincoln’s generals seemed so unsuccessful in the Civil War that in August 1864 it was widely believed he would be defeated for re-election. But finally Lincoln found the right generals. Sherman took Atlanta and marched to the sea; Grant pressed forward in Virginia.
Franklin Roosevelt picked the right generals and admirals from the start in World War II, but the first years of the war were filled with errors and mistakes. Even Vietnam is not necessarily a counterexample. As Lewis Sorley argues persuasively in "A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam," Gen. Creighton Abrams came up with a winning strategy by 1972. South Vietnam fell three years later when the North Vietnamese army attacked en masse, and Congress refused to allow the aid the U.S. had promised.
George W. Bush, like Lincoln, took his time finding the right generals. But it’s clear now that the forward-moving surge strategy devised by Gens. David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno has succeeded where the stand-aside strategy employed by their predecessors failed. American troops are surely the most capable military force in history. They just need to be given the right orders.
Lesson two is that societies can more easily be transformed from the bottom up than from the top down. Bush’s critics are still concentrating on the failure of the central Iraqi government to reach agreement on important issues — even though the oil revenues are already being distributed to the provinces. We persuaded the Iraqis to elect their parliament from national party lists (reportedly so that it would include more women) rather than to elect them from single-member districts that would have elected community leaders more in touch with local opinion.
But the impetus for change has come from the bottom up, from tribal sheiks in Anbar province who got tired of the violence and oppression of al Qaeda in Iraq, from Shiites and Sunnis who, once confident of the protection of American forces and of the new Iraqi military, decided to quit killing each other. They did not wait for orders from Baghdad or for legislation to be passed with all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed.
Our own recent history should have taught us that bottom-up transformation, in local laboratories of reform, can often achieve results that seemed impossible to national leaders. At the beginning of the 1990s we seemed to have intractable problems of high crime and welfare dependency. Experts argued that we couldn’t hope for improvement. But state and local leaders got to work and showed that change for the better was possible. They included Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson on welfare and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani on crime control and many others, mostly Republicans but many Democrats as well. The federal government came charging in only after success was achieved in states and cities across the country. By now welfare dependency and crime have fallen by more than half, and they have virtually disappeared as political issues.
Lesson three is that it doesn’t pay to bet against America. As Walter Russell Mead explains in his trenchant (and entertaining) "God and Gold: Britain and America and the Making of the Modern World," first Britain and then America have built the most prosperous and creative economies the world has ever seen and have prevailed in every major military conflict (except when they fought each other) since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Many of those victories have been achieved in conflicts far more grueling than what we have faced in Iraq.
Some of George W. Bush’s critics seem to have relished the prospect of American defeat and some refuse to acknowledge the success that has been achieved. But it appears that they have "misunderestimated" him once again, and have "misunderestimated" the competence of the American military and of free peoples working from the bottom up to transform their societies for the better. It’s something to be thankful for as the new year begins.