Revisiting Iraq in the Shadow of Syria
This week, President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Syria-Turkey border region. In so doing Trump rekindled debates about credibility, support for allies, and America’s role in the Middle East. Critics warned that abandoning the Kurds, who served as coalition partners in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, would undermine U.S. influence in the region and chip away at its global reputation. The sudden announcement also drew attention to Trump’s chaotic foreign policy process, given that it seemed to catch everyone by surprise.
All this looks like a funhouse mirror version of President George W. Bush’s decision to “surge” in Iraq in January 2007. In that case, observers praised the president for making a tough call in support of local allies, and for encouraging a thoughtful policy debate at a time of intense political pressure. Bush doubled down on U.S. force to rescue a fractured country. Trump is betting on withdrawal. Bush’s decision was the culmination of months of serious policy debate. Trump justified his actions on Twitter.
But the contrast is not so simple. The results of the Iraq surge were mixed, and in some cases unexpected. U.S. surge forces contributed to a reduction of violence in 2007, but they could not repair the underlying fissures in Iraqi politics. They also inadvertently eroded the quality of Iraqi civil-military relations, which made the country especially vulnerable to another militant uprising. Critics are already using the experience in Iraq as a cudgel against Trump, given his desire to exit Syria. The story of the surge, however, is a cautionary tale for those who advocate deeper military commitments in war-torn countries.
Bush ordered the deployment of five additional combat brigades to Iraq as the country was in the midst of a gruesome civil war. He recognized his previous strategy had failed, but instead of pulling out of Iraq, as critics demanded, Bush decided to double down on the military effort. The new troops would help protect civilians from the worst of the violence, while buying time for the fledgling Iraqi government. Bush also installed a new commander, Gen. David Petraeus, who championed a different U.S. approach. Rather than seeking to win by destroying insurgent forces, the new strategy focused on securing the population and building a legitimate regime in Baghdad.
The violence in Iraq clearly diminished after the surge forces arrived. Civilian deaths declined throughout the second half of 2007, and by the next summer monthly casualty rates were down to about a tenth of what they had been during the worst period of fighting. Iraq remained a bloody and fragile place, to be sure, but the surge seemed to have lived up to expectations.
Supporters of the administration cheered the president for taking a bold stand in the face of public opposition. Rather than buckling to pressure to abandon Iraq, including from retired military officers, he encouraged a self-critical review of the administration’s strategy before settling on a new one. Some analysts argued that the surge was particularly well suited to the nature of the war in Iraq. Not only did it work to protect civilians, but it also encouraged positive trends around the country that collectively contributed to greater stability. Skeptical analysts argued that the story was more complex, and that a host of other factors caused the reduction in violence. But these arguments did little to challenge the conventional wisdom about the surge. The narrative was simple, powerful, and enduring.
The plaudits continue today. An ambitious new project to document the history of the surge captures the perspectives of all the major U.S. political and military figures involved in the debate, including the president. While the interviewees do not agree on every point, the overwhelming view is that Bush made the right choice. The strategic shift was painful — no one likes to admit when they are losing — but it was long overdue. And if the surge was truly the last card in the deck, Bush played it well. The president’s willingness to overrule the opinions of prominent military officers was itself a triumph of civil-military relations, because it reinforced the primacy of political leadership.
Strategy on Hold
The oral history project also includes both a history of the surge as seen through eyes of Bush administration officials, and a series of commentaries from outside scholars who had access to the interview transcripts. Some of the scholars are generally sympathetic to Bush’s decision, even though they opposed the war. And most agree that Bush was correct to restore the norm of civilian control. My own views are different. As I write in my commentary, the argument about strategy is misleading, and the argument about civil-military relations only applies to the United States. For Iraq, the surge was a civil-military disaster.
The surge did not represent a new strategy; it put strategy on hold. The administration did not change its political goals: “a unified democratic federal Iraq that can govern itself, defend itself, and sustain itself, and is an ally in the War on Terror.” What changed was the underlying faith in Iraqi capabilities. Reversing his earlier desire for a rapid handoff, the president concluded that Iraqi security forces were simply unable to create meaningful security in a deeply fractured country. Only U.S. troops could succeed. The immediate need thus shifted from preparing to hand responsibility to Iraqi personnel, to figuring out how to use American forces to staunch the bleeding. Figuring out how to translate better security into political progress could wait. For the time being, strategy took a backseat to operational demands.
Not surprisingly, former Bush administration officials disagree with this assessment. The surge in their telling was a carefully designed campaign to encourage population security and create space for political deals among the warring factions in Iraq. The arrival of Petraeus, armed with a new counter-insurgency doctrine, would simultaneously bolster efforts to help the Iraqi government win popular support.
But the oral histories reveal a much less nuanced debate about Iraqi politics during the buildup to the surge. Because everything rested on reducing the violence, politics could wait. Meghan O’Sullivan, who served as deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan, described the basic debate among those who thought that internecine violence was “primordial” and those who thought the United States might still exert some influence. For the latter group, the need for security overwhelmed all other needs. Peter Feaver, who served in the National Security Council during the surge debate, aptly described the surge as a “gamble for resurrection.”
Military necessity trumped strategic calculation in the desperate months of late 2006. The overriding question was how to use the new brigades to stop the killing, and planning began in earnest after Bush accepted that U.S. forces were the only ones who could do it. As Sullivan recalls, the president’s comments
shifted the conversation. If you decide that we’re actually going to take on the mission of quelling sectarian violence because we see it as being fundamental to the larger mission of stabilizing Iraq, then you get into this category, OK, how can you achieve that? What kind of mission should our forces have? And that’s how we got into the counterinsurgency option.
Faith in counter-insurgency rested on the belief that U.S. forces would have a calming influence because they were not aligned with any single faction. As then-National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley put it, “the only force that was going to be accepted by the communities was actually an American force.” If this was true, then the question became how to make them more conspicuous to frightened Iraqis. Petraeus’ approach offered a practical answer: increase the frequency of patrols and guarantee constant contact with the population. Rather than sequestering troops on heavily protected bases, get them out into local neighborhoods, where they could help to separate locals from militants and create some semblance of stability. The Army-Marine Corps field manual on counter-insurgency, overseen by Petraeus and released almost simultaneously with the surge decision, offered detailed guidance on implementing this approach.
Iraq’s Civil-Military Breakdown
The operational burdens of counter-insurgency obscured at least two strategic dilemmas. One was that Petraeus’ doctrine potentially worked at cross-purposes with the surge. The administration recognized that Iraq had descended into a complex sectarian civil war, and that it was not simply an insurgent movement against the government and its American patron. This was a civil war involving many groups competing for power, and solution was taking sides rather than trying to accommodate everyone. But administration officials favored the kind of counter-insurgency that Petraeus was advocating — a stylized effort based on Cold War communist rebellions — despite their acknowledgement that this was a different kind of war.
The surge was also inconsistent with Petraeus’ emphasis on supporting host military forces, building their capabilities and helping them earn the respect of the civilians they were sworn to defend. Indeed, the counter-insurgency field manual warned against seizing the reins: “While it may be easier for American military units to conduct operations themselves, it is better to work to strengthen local forces and then assist them.” The surge, however, was built on the opposite premise. It deliberately put efforts to strengthen and assist Iraqi security forces on the back burner, and unleashed American brigades to manage Iraq’s defense. This is one of the key insights of the new oral history. Prior U.S. strategy had rested on the “train-and-transfer” model, which would accelerate the handoff to capable Iraqi forces. Bush backed this approach until he became convinced that Iraqi forces were incapable.
These contradictory impulses — that the United States could intervene in a civil war without choosing sides, and that it could take over military operations without undermining Iraqis’ faith in their own forces — were unsustainable. A year after Bush announced the surge decision, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki surprised the administration by launching a military operation against intra-sectarian rivals in Basra. The administration was surprised and somewhat dismayed by this move, but it ultimately went along. In so doing it tacitly admitted that U.S. forces could not remain impartial. Administration officials already suspected that Maliki was a sectarian at heart and no champion of an inclusive Iraqi republic, but had little choice but to back his play. Many Iraqis feared the worst about Maliki, and his subsequent actions did nothing to alleviate their concerns.
The result was the worst of all worlds: a corrupt and sectarian government leading a corrupt and incompetent Iraqi military. These were the conditions that allowed the Islamic State to run roughshod over large swaths of Iraq a few years later, as the government scrambled and security forces fell apart. The surge may have been a triumph for American civil-military relations, but for Iraq it was a calamity.
Was there a better option? In 2006, Bush administration officials confronted a terrible problem with no obvious solution. Every alternative they considered carried serious costs and risks. While I am critical of the surge, I am sympathetic to those involved in the decision, given the pressure they faced and the limited choices at their disposal. The problem, however, was that by grasping a short-term expedient, policymakers pushed the United States toward a long-term occupation. For the surge to succeed, it demanded not just temporary reinforcements but an open-ended military commitment to Iraq. Only then could the United States shift from military necessity to addressing the basic strategic problems fueling the civil war. And only after many years could it confidently hand control back to Iraqi security forces.
The surge, then, represented more than just a strategic pause. It also put on hold the question of where the Persian Gulf fit into broader U.S. interests. If peace and stability in Iraq were central to American national security, then the administration was justified in constructing an approach that set the conditions for an enduring U.S. presence. If not, then the only option was to get out.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
The same question lies just beneath the surface of the Syria debate today. Trump has made his position clear: U.S. forces and local partners have defeated the Islamic State in Syria, and thus have no reason to remain along the contested Syria-Turkey border. Broader policy objectives — deterring a Turkish incursion, or establishing a durable political order in Syria — are either beyond U.S. influence or irrelevant to U.S. national security. Trump has defined victory narrowly and in a way that justifies withdrawal. Some observers agree with the basic argument, encouraging not just a tactical withdrawal from the border, but a full exit from Syria.
Critics argue that the risks of leaving are too large. Republicans warn that it sacrifices U.S. regional influence to Russia and Iran, and others warn that it sacrifices America’s reputation with allies and partners. More tangible risks include the likelihood that Islamic State fighters currently held by Kurdish forces will be released. The immediate consequences of withdrawal should give the president a moment of pause.
These risks, especially the fate of captive militants, deserve close scrutiny. But they must not overwhelm strategic judgment. A central lesson from the Iraq surge is the danger that arises when tactical necessity allows political and military leaders to put strategy on hold. Focusing on practical questions is understandable in desperate circumstances, but it is not a license to set aside the underlying logic of military action. Those who favor a continued presence in Syria are obligated to explain how deployed forces will facilitate a durable outcome at an acceptable cost. The alternative is a semi-permanent garrison in the heart of the Middle East, whose mission and purpose are unclear.
Joshua Rovner is associate professor in the School of International Service at American University.