Perhaps it is too early to declare the much-vaunted troop escalation in Iraq (dubbed by George Bush the peppier-sounding "surge" which has been dutifully parroted by the press) a failure. But that judgement is no more precipitous than the near-immediate declarations of "success!" made by virtually everyone.
The troop escalation has been called a success because it has been credited with bringing about a dramatic drop in violence in Iraq. Because of this, the troop escalation has been just about the last thing Bush loyalists and Iraq war cheerleaders can hang onto. They have so desperately wanted something here to work in what has otherwise been an abject failure that they almost immediately seized on the troop escalation, and its architect, David Petreaus. Chirpy Republican apologist David Brooks recently called the troop escalation Bush's signature success and one of the most courageous decisions made by any president.
We should acknowledge, however, that correlation is not necessarily causation - Iraq had descended into what should have been called a civil war; civil wars have their own gruesome dynamics and the decrease in violence may also correspond to the exhaustion of warring parties; and despite the troop escalation, Iraq remains one of the most violent, dangerous places in the world. And, of course, many of the warring parties in Iraq put down their weapons because the US Army paid them to - once the money stops, who knows what will happen?
The larger point is that reducing violence was never supposed to be the goal of the escalation. Getting the violence under control was a means to an end. It was supposed to create the space for the political process to work. And the results here, while perhaps not yet a failure, surely don't look like success.
In the past week, Prime Minister Maliki seems more and more like he is consolidating power in purely sectarian ways, shutting out other players, who, in turn, have access to fighters and weapons. And a new round of bombings have been deadly enough to land on the front page of the papers, rather than in the middle. Iraq, to judge by the news coming out of there right now, seems no closer to peace and stability than it was a year ago.
Many people have made the analogy between Iraq and Vietnam, and there are haunting similarities. But it has always seemed to me that the better, and even more horrifying, analogy is Cambodia. Once a prosperous and stable country - in the 1960s it was a net exporter of food - Cambodia was brought to ruin once the Richard Nixon and Henry Kissenger orchestrated secret (and illegal) bombings in their pursuit of North Vietnamese soldiers. Just as Iraq was turned into a proxy in the "war of terrorism," Cambodia was the collateral damage of our feckless Vietnam adventure.
Once American troops left Southeast Asia in 1975 Cambodia descended into a fratricidal civil war which ended with the triumph of the Khmer Rouge. Cambodians thus went from bombing raids, to civil war to genocide in just under a decade. It has not really recovered in the thirty years since (it still must import food each year, for example).
American troops must be withdrawn from Iraq. But as we prepare to pull them out, we ought to use the remaining time there to push for political solutions rather than simply congratulating ourselves on the "success" of the troop escalation. No one can envision where Iraq might be in 30 years, but then no one envisioned what became of Cambodia either. Perhaps we can learn something from that tragedy.