On the Definition of “Success”

Due to Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama’s trip to Iraq early this past week, there’s been a lot of seeming consensus in the news media again around the idea that the so-called “surge” has succeeded. The campaign of Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain has been aggressively pushing this narrative mostly because it’s virtually the only thing McCain is running on now (i.e. saying he was right about the surge). However, early in the week the New York Times rejected McCain’s op-ed piece (which was a rebuttal to Obama’s op-ed piece a week earlier) on the grounds that it offered no new information (in terms of overall strategy with regard to Iraq and Afghanistan) and that it did not define “victory” (read: success) in Iraq.

Let’s have a look at the definition of “success”:

success: (noun) the accomplishment of an aim or purpose

While on his whirlwind international tour this week, Obama was interviewed by CBS News anchor Katie Couric. She asked him three different times, within a few minutes, some variation of the McCain Campaign talking point: “Why don’t you admit that the surge has succeeded?” Obama said there was no doubt that the work U.S. troops did was one of the things that had helped to reduce violence (see below for more info on what the other things were). Obama has consistently said the aim or purpose of the Bush surge strategy was to reduce violence enough to enable significant political progress between different Iraqi factions and interests; and to bring an end to the de facto civil war which had engulfed the nation in sectarian violence.

So has this aim or purpose been met? If adding tens of thousands of additional troops wasn’t the only thing that contributed to a reduction in violence, what were the other things? Can we actually, in all honesty, say that the surge has succeeded? Was the only goal of the surge to reduce violence? And if so, now what?

Independent journalist Dahr Jamail was interviewed on Democracy Now! back in January right after President Bush touted the surge as a success in his SOTU address. Jamail emphasized that we understand the surge (or more appropriately termed, escalation) in the context of a then almost five-year war.

JAMAIL: Well, the surge—and what’s very interesting, too, is not only do we have a US surge, according to Mr. Bush, we have an Iraqi surge—two Iraqi surges, actually, the first of which he mentioned in his talk last night, the concerned citizens or the awakening groups. Well, it’s really interesting that the same time last year, as Mr. Bush was happily doing during his speech, comparing where were we last year to this year, well, last year, these same people, these concerned local citizens, according to the US military, were called al-Qaeda or insurgents or terrorists. And now that there’s 80,000 of them on the US payroll, they’re concerned citizens and they’re an Iraqi surge. And these same people, as we look at the situation on the ground, this is causing deep, deep—a deepening of the political divisions in the country. The US-backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been vehemently opposed to this concerned citizens group backed by the US military in Iraq, these people, most of which are former resistance fighters, because they’re now a threat to the Iraqi government forces. So that’s causing huge problems on the ground in Iraq today. And if we look at the situation, the military recently announced within the last month that there was a sevenfold increase in the use of air power last year. So these are some of the reasons why right now there are fewer US troops dying, but the reality is they’re paying off resistance fighters to stand down. And Muqtada al-Sadr, who commands the largest militia in the country, has his militia on stand-down until next month, where that stand-down might end and things would change dramatically.

The current debate between the presidential candidates about who was right about the surge (and moderated by the news media) would, I think, like Jamail, be better understood in terms of the broader context of the Iraq War as a whole. Not to mention framing it using clear defintions of words like “success.” You would think that the news media that did so poorly in covering the rush to war in 2002-03 would try a little harder to get this part of the story right. Or maybe not.

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