John McCain has made much of how he was correct about the Surge in Iraq when his opponent was saying it wouldn't work. Barack Obama has been moving gradually further towards McCain's position, propelled there by a narrative that questions his original judgement in the face of drastic cuts in Iraqi violence which have popularly been ascribed to the Surge. He's now at the point of saying it "succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.”
But how close to reality are McCain and Obama's positions? Well, for a start it's unclear that it's actually the Surge that has been instrumental in lowering Iraqi violence (to parity with some of the world's bloodiest conflicts instead of being in a class of its own). The Sunni Awakening and a ceasefire by the Shiite Sadrist movement must also take a large part of the credit and, despite McCain's attempt at rewriting history, both pre-dated the Surge. Indeed, even General Petraeus admits the possibility that, due to these entirely local developments, violence in Iraq might have fallen just as much even without the Surge.
Paying the Awakening movement some $30 million a month to not attack US troops wasn't originally a part of the Surge plan that McCain backed and it's unlikely he would have supported such a move in any case. John McCain has made much of Barack Obama's supposed wish for "appeasement" of terrorists in negotiating with Iran or Hamas - how much worse is it then to bring terrorists onto the payroll? Many of the Awakening's so-called Sons of Iraq were previously members of the insurgency.
Now that both Maliki and the established Sunni political elite feel they are becoming a threat to their Green Zone based power, while the US is stopping bribing them not to attack US forces, the Awakening is in danger of being dropped like a hot potato - and at least a portion of the 100,000 strong movement will return to violence.
Likewise, the Sadrist movement has been described as a terrorist outfit by American hawks yet General Petraeus was generous in his praise of Sadr when he needed the ceasefire renewed. Is Petraeus an appeaser too?
Then there's the purpose of the Surge - which wasn't just to reduce violence but also to give a window of opportunity for Iraqi reconcilliation. That simply hasn't happened. No oil law has yet been passed and if the Kurds get their way it never will be. No law on provincial elections has yet been passed and it's now unlikely it will be before the end of the year. The Powers That be intend using that haitus to make sure the Powers That Aren't stay that way and this is another possible flashpoint for renewed violence. De'baathification is stalled and fairly much window dressing in any case- and the head of the committee that oversees it has been arrested on suspicion of involvement with Shiite terror groups. (Which, if true, puts McCain and his top foreign policy adviser just one degree of separation away from murderers of US troops.) The Sadrists are reorganising and probably biding their time. Goodly portions of the Awakening, as we've seen, are threatening a return to insurgency.
The latest news is that even the ruling powers in Iraq are in an armed face-off. Iraqi troops and Kurdish peshmerga forces are bracing for conflict in the disputed city of Khanaqin, in Diyala province. "The Iraqi army still wants to enter, and the peshmerga is present," said Ibrahim Bajelani, a Kurd who heads the provincial council. "Everyone is on edge. If the Iraqi army tries to enter without prior agreement, we can't be held responsible for the consequences."
This isn't reconciliation. Iraq is looking more and more like a bad spaghetti western, everyone in a circle, hands twitching, waiting for someone to blink - and Maliki seems to think he's Clint Eastwood. Developing tensions between Iraq's religious and ethnic groups are actually being fuelled by Maliki, who seems to relish his new-found perception of himself as a "strongman" figure. As a consequence, the White House is ready to accept military recommendation that significant troop withdrawals be paused until early 2009, despite the possibility of this hurting Republicans at the polls, as a hedge against the very real threat of Iraq exploding again.
So, to recap - the Surge didn't succeed in reducing violence alone, not even by half; it didn't help one iota in repairing the divisions between Iraqis and instead various Iraqis including the Prime Minister took the opportunity to widen those divisions (and by the way, allegations that the US spied on Maliki are unlikely to put him in a mood to listen to the White House) ... now it looks increasingly likely that violence will explode again.
Obama should have stuck to his guns and media pressure be damned.