Liberals and the Iraq Surge
In early January 2007, 71 percent of Americans said the Iraq war was going moderately badly to very badly. Indeed, the war had been unpopular for much of the previous years, at times deeply so. But by this past September, a nationwide Pew survey found “a striking rise in public optimism about the situation in Iraq.” According to the poll, 58 percent of Americans now believe the war in Iraq is going well or very well, and the same percentage now also say that the U.S. will definitely or probably succeed in Iraq.By September, General David Petraeus was reporting substantial progress in Iraq, but the liberals simply refused to believe it.
This news is encouraging—and not terribly surprising. After all, most Americans have assessed the situation in Iraq based on a reasonable interpretation of events on the ground. And since the January 2007 announcement of the “surge”—President Bush’s decision to deploy 30,000 additional troops to Iraq, armed with a fundamentally new counterinsurgency strategy—the situation on the ground has, by every conceivable measure, improved. In some cases, the progress has been stunning.
And yet, no matter what most American believe or what reality tells us is so, leading liberal observers and politicians, long in the vanguard of opposition to the war, have denounced the surge at every point. Even as some, in the face of overwhelming evidence, have been forced to concede a modicum of American progress, they have done so reluctantly and have downplayed the role played by administration policy in achieving that progress. Others have denied that significant progress has been made at all.
Why they have responded in this way is a question worth exploring. But first it may be useful to establish the record.
The formal inauguration of the surge in January 2007—in announcing it, the President said it would “change America’s course in Iraq, and help us succeed in the fight against terror”—was met by liberal commentators with a skepticism bordering on derision.
Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post mocked Bush’s “fantasy-based escalation . . . which could only make sense in some parallel universe where pigs fly and fish commute on bicycles.” At Time, Joe Klein ridiculed “Bush’s futile pipe dream.” Jonathan Chait, writing in the Los Angeles Times, found “something genuinely bizarre” about those Americans who actually supported the new strategy. “It is not just that they are wrong. . . . It’s that they are completely detached from reality.” The New Republic’s Peter Beinart predicted that, by 2008, American soldiers would “still be dying, and the catastrophe will still be deepening.” In sending more troops to Baghdad, Beinart wrote, “Bush is showing his commitment to win—except that the United States has already lost.”
Liberal politicians were just as certain that the surge was a doomed and irresponsible policy. On the night of the announcement, Senator Barack Obama proclaimed: “I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq are going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse.” Later in the month, Senator Joseph Biden declared: “If he surges another 20, 30 [thousand], or whatever number he’s going to, into Baghdad, it’ll be a tragic mistake.” Senator Hillary Clinton similarly insisted that “I cannot support [the] proposed escalation of the war in Iraq,” while Senator John Kerry said that sending in additional troops was not an “answer” but “a tragic mistake.”
Throughout the spring, even though the full complement of additional troops had yet to arrive in Iraq, the drumbeat of opposition continued, and so did intimations of American defeat. To Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, “the [American] lives lost in Iraq were wasted.” Former Ambassador Peter Galbraith, writing in the New York Review of Books, argued that Bush had embraced a plan that “has no chance of actually working. At this late stage, 21,500 additional troops cannot make a difference.” On Capitol Hill, Senator Christopher Dodd asserted that “there is no military solution in Iraq. To insist upon a surge is wrong.” Senate majority leader Harry Reid declared that “this surge is not accomplishing anything” and in April announced flatly that the Iraq war was “lost.”
Two months later, liberal critics of the war remained of the same mind, and were now demanding that we quit the field altogether. According to a July 8 New York Times editorial, the time had come “for the United States to leave Iraq, without any more delay than the Pentagon needs to organize an orderly exit.” (This, despite the paper’s acknowledgment in the same editorial that an American pullout was likely to yield “further ethnic cleansing, even genocide,” not to mention regional chaos and more terrorism.) James Fallows of the Atlantic, a sharp critic of the surge from the outset, wrote that the expectations “being heaped” on it were “simply laughable.”
In August, Michael Ignatieff, formerly of Harvard and now deputy leader of Canada’s Liberal party, took to the pages of the New York Times Magazine with a mea culpa titled “Getting Iraq Wrong: What the War Has Taught Me About Political Judgment.” Ignatieff wrote:The unfolding catastrophe in Iraq has condemned the political judgment of a President. But it has also condemned the judgment of many others, myself included, who as commentators supported the  invasion. Many of us believed, as an Iraqi exile friend told me the night the war started, that it was the only chance the members of his generation would have to live in freedom in their own country. How distant a dream that now seems.In fact, however, far from having turned into an “unfolding catastrophe,” the dream was already getting closer to realization. By the summer of 2007, although Iraq was still in many ways a broken nation, evidence was mounting that the surge was working. In almost no time, sectarian violence had been sharply decreased in Baghdad, and the provinces of Anbar and Diyala were being reclaimed. Coalition forces were making huge headway in human intelligence, and Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was on the run.
But none of this mattered to the administration’s liberal critics, who to their earlier prognosis of failure were now adding charges of government cooking of the evidence. Even before the Petraeus-Crocker testimony, Senator Dick Durbin, the Democratic majority whip, warned Americans that “by carefully manipulating the statistics, the Bush-Petraeus report will try to persuade us that violence in Iraq is decreasing and thus the surge is working.” After the hearing, Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts said the general’s testimony was “just a façade to hide from view the continuing failure of the Bush administration’s strategy.” To Representative Rahm Emanuel, the general’s written report deserved to win “the Nobel Prize for creative statistics or the Pulitzer for fiction.”It was a pretty sordid performance, and a stunning example of chosed-mindedness.
Paul Krugman, an influential columnist for the New York Times, could not have agreed more. The administration, he flatly asserted, was intentionally misleading the public by “creating the perception that the ‘surge’ is succeeding, even though there’s not a shred of verifiable evidence to suggest that it is.” Others were even more reckless. A Democratic Senator complained to the website Politico that no one was willing to call Petraeus “a liar on national TV,” hoping instead that “outside groups will do this for us.” As if in response, MoveOn.org, the left-wing political-action committee, promptly took out a full-page ad in the New York Times proposing, in giant type, a new name for General Petraeus: “General Betray Us.”
But why? Wehner has two hypotheses.
A generous interpretation is that by the end of 2006, many liberals had made a definitive good-faith judgment that the Iraq war was irretrievably lost. This then became the filter through which they viewed all later developments. Once convinced of the impossibility of substantial progress, never mind a decent outcome or an actual victory, they could not help receiving good news as anomalous and/or inherently unsustainable.But then Wehner suggests this interpretation is too generous.
Enter, ignominiously, politics. For some liberals, hatred of the President was clearly so all-encompassing that they had developed a deep investment in the failure of what they habitually dismissed not as America’s war but as “Bush’s war.”In short, liberals and leftists were consumed with a hatred of Bush, and could not bear the thought that the war would be a success.
Liberals will claim, if they admit they hate Bush at all, that they hate him because of the policies he has pursued. But the simple fact is that Bush hatred is cultural. Liberals don’t start with liberal policy preferences and hate Bush because he is a conservative. That could not possibly explain the depth of the hatred.
Rather, the hatred is cultural. As we explained to the Associated Press in 2004:
John McAdams, a political scientist at Marquette University, said resentment of Bush is particularly strong among liberals who already hold three things against him: “First, he’s a conservative. Second, he’s a Christian. And third, he’s a Texan. When you add all of those things up, that invokes pretty much every symbol of the cultural wars.”This cultural hatred of Bush has not merely led to liberals wanting the Bush presidency to fail.
“It’s particularly galling when somebody who mangles his syntax and doesn’t pronounce words extremely well and is from Texas beats you,” McAdams added.
It has led to liberals wanting America to lose the war.