In 2006, things seemed to be going badly for the U.S. military efforts in Iraq. The Iraq war became a top issue in the 2006 Congressional elections in the United States. It is generally agreed that the Republicans did poorly in those elections, largely because the U.S. electorate had become disillusioned with the viability and therefore the worthwhileness of the U.S. invasion.
On December 11, 2006, a stellar bi-partisan committee of establishment figures headed by James A. Baker and Lee Hamilton issued a report calling for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops and direct discussions with Iran and Syria about all outstanding issues in the Middle East.
Despite very wide political support for the Baker-Hamilton recommendations, President Bush decided on a quite different response to the faltering military situation, a response that has come to be called the “surge.” Basically, the surge strategy was not to withdraw troops but to increase troops, and to seek in various ways to reduce radically the violence both against U.S. troops and against Iraqis.
Now, some eighteen months later, the Bush regime and Republican candidate John McCain are hailing the success of the surge. It is true that attacks on U.S. military are radically down from where they were eighteen months ago. It is also true that violence against Iraqis is somewhat, and selectively, down. As a result, there has been a change in U.S. public opinion. The polls show that the number of people who think that the war was a “mistake” is about the same, and they still favor a phased withdrawal. What has changed is the degree of anxiety or urgency the U.S. public feels. Iraq is no longer their number one concern. Attention has shifted radically to the poor state of the world-economy and particularly of the U.S. economy. The net result in U.S. electoral politics is that McCain is not attracting undecided voters on the basis of the success of the surge but neither is Obama any longer drawing many undecided voters on the basis of his promise to withdraw troops.
That still leaves the question: Has the surge really worked? I suppose if one looks exclusively at short-run casualty figures in Iraq, one could argue it did. It would work even better if the United States could send in another 200,000 troops. But the United States does not have another 200,000 troops to send in. And its collaborating countries have been withdrawing their troops, not sending more in. Of course, if you bribe a whole lot of Sunni sheiks, they will be on the U.S. side for the time being. And if you institutionalize ethnic expulsions, as in Baghdad, there is less room for some of the kinds of inter-Iraqi violence that had been previously occurring. And if Moqtada al-Sadr thinks it is wiser to bide his time, there will be a temporary reduction in the kind of violence that had been occurring before.
But look at what has happened elsewhere in the Middle East because of the surge. In November of 2006, the United States and NATO had been congratulating themselves on the success of their efforts in Afghanistan. But since then, two things have happened. The number of U.S. casualties has soared, passing now those in Iraq. So has violence against Afghans. Suddenly the Taliban are back in a big way. And now, for the first time since 2001, the pundits are talking about the possibility of the U.S. losing the war in Afghanistan as well as Iraq.
And look at Pakistan. Since November 2006, the country has had relatively democratic elections, which brought to power a legislature hostile to President Musharraf, still the person on whom the Bush regime is relying to pursue a policy favorable to U.S. interests. Musharraf, as a consequence, has been struggling to keep his head above water. One of the ways in which he has done this is to make a tacit deal with the Islamist forces in the northwest frontier region that favor and harbor both al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Recently, these forces almost occupied the largest urban center in the region. They are in any case very strong, and are actively helping the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Then look at Iran. Iran is huffing and puffing. So is Israel about Iran. So is Dick Cheney. The fact is, however, that Iran is stronger than ever. And they have been strengthening in every way their links with the two groups in Iraq upon which U.S. hopes are based — the al-Maliki government and the Kurds. Iran actually shares many interests with the United States in Afghanistan. But the United States is unable to take advantage of this geopolitical alliance because it insists on seeing Iran as the evil demon in the Middle East.
Now look again at Iraq. The United States had hoped that, with the surge so “successful,” they could get Iraq to sign this year a status-of-forces agreement, which would lock in the stationing of U.S. troops and U.S. bases in Iraq for decades to come. Instead, al-Maliki has made it clear that not only won’t Iraq sign more than a brief interim agreement but that it won’t do even that unless the United States commits to a timetable for withdrawal, something anathema to both Bush and McCain.
I could go on — about Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, the Gulf states. The fact is that the United States is decidedly weaker everywhere in the Middle East in the eighteen months since the surge began. Has it not been in part, maybe in large part, precisely because of the surge? The Middle East today is like a large geopolitical balloon. If you squeeze it at one point, the air will simply displace itself to another point. And the balloon is getting more fragile all the time. It is on the verge of bursting.
Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, is the author of “The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World,” (New Press). Copyright ©2008 Immanuel Wallerstein