In Iraq, sadly, the troop surge planned by George W. Bush probably won't make much difference. After all, the United States has already surged — the military sent several thousand more troops to Baghdad last summer — and the violence only got worse. Moreover, the intellectual architects of a new surge — retired General Jack Keane and the American Enterprise Institute's Frederick Kagan — say it will require 30,000 more troops over 18 months to have a chance of success. But, according to most press reports, Bush is talking about no more than 20,000, and military officials say that number can't be sustained for more than six months or a year. Some liberals don't like the term "surge," demanding that journalists call Bush's plan an "escalation" instead. But, if the military is to be believed, "surge" is actually correct, because the United States can't maintain a long-term escalation, which is one reason Bush's plan will almost certainly fail.
But, if the surge makes little difference in Iraq, it could make a profound difference in the United States, shaping the way Americans see the war for years to come. Even as Bush makes a last stab at victory, the "who lost Iraq?" debate is well underway. And, like all such debates, there are two main factions: those who believe the war was not winnable and those who believe it was — had we only taken off the gloves.
The last time the United States endured such a debate, over Vietnam, the hawks more than held their own. One of Vietnam's great ironies is that, rather than empowering the American left, it ended up empowering the American right. It was in Vietnam's aftermath that the conservative movement, after decades in the political wilderness, finally seized power. It did so in part by blaming the antiwar movement — which had burrowed deep within the Democratic Party — for America's defeat and by claiming, as Ronald Reagan told the Conservative Political Action Conference in 1974, that the real "lesson of Vietnam" was that the United States didn't "pledge our full resources to achieve victory."
Now, because of the surge, that's going to be very hard to say about Iraq. The blame game has already been different this time around because conservatives are in charge. During Vietnam, when the White House was occupied by liberals (John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson) and moderates (Richard Nixon), hawks could carp about a lack of presidential will. George W. Bush, by contrast, has always been the right's guy, and thus, harder to tag as a weak-kneed dove.
Nonetheless, for three and a half years, Iraq hawks have had an alibi: The United States didn't have enough troops. From the editors of The Weekly Standard and National Review to John McCain, conservatives have demanded that Donald Rumsfeld be sidelined and his light-footprint strategy be ditched. Now, they're finally getting their wish: Rumsfeld is gone, and his Iraq policy is about to follow. Last month, Keane and Kagan wrote: "The United States faces a dire situation in Iraq because of a history of half-measures." How will they explain Iraq's "dire situation" a year from now, after the Bush administration has abandoned half-measures and embraces the all-out effort that they demand?
That question must keep McCain's advisers up at night. In Vietnam, the right's advice was never followed and, thus, never came up for a vote. When Reagan called Vietnam a "noble cause" in 1980, he was stoking a myth of national innocence and invincibility for which beleaguered Americans yearned. But he could do so precisely because his preferred policies on Vietnam had never been tried. In 2008, by contrast, Iraq won't be a symbolic issue. Americans will still be dying, and the catastrophe will still be deepening, largely because of policies clearly identified with the likely Republican presidential nominee. McCain can claim that, by sending only 20,000 troops, Bush didn't surge enough — and, thus, his preferred policy didn't fail. But that will look like quibbling. Already, presidential hopeful John Edwards has dubbed Bush's surge "the McCain Doctrine," and, with public support for a surge near single digits, Democrats will likely make that a central thrust of their campaign to retake the White House.
So far, it's working. According to a December Washington Post poll, support for McCain has fallen 15 points among independents — once his political base — since March 2006. And, in several surveys, his lead in a hypothetical face-off against Hillary Clinton, which once regularly topped ten points, has dwindled to nothing. That has a lot to do with his stance on Iraq, and, with the war about to escalate, his slide may well continue. By next year, McCain's government-reforming, straight-talking image could be largely eclipsed by his role as cheerleader-in-chief for an Iraq policy Americans can't stand.
Give McCain his due: He's acting from conviction. He's doing exactly what pundits always demand of politicians — ignoring the consultants, ignoring the polls, and doing what he thinks is right. At this point, McCain's position probably hurts him even in the Republican primary. It's one of the more remarkable episodes in recent political memory.
But, by following his gut, McCain may send U.S. politics in exactly the direction he hopes it does not go. If Iraq is the issue in 2008 and Democrats win, it will dramatically alter the politics of foreign policy. Ever since Vietnam, it has been conventional wisdom that, in presidential elections, doves lose and hawks win. If Iraq sinks McCain's candidacy for president, that will go out the window. More dovish politicians will start looking politically viable and more hawkish ones won't.
In his 2000 campaign book, A Charge to Keep, George W. Bush wrote that the lesson of Vietnam was that "we must not go into a conflict unless we go in committed to win." Now, by sending more troops to Baghdad, Bush is showing his commitment to win — except that the United States has already lost. As a result, future presidents will likely say the lesson of Iraq is that the United States should not go into a conflict unless we are able to win, which is a very, very different thing.
By Peter Beinart
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