General Jack Keane points out that
45 would do well to ponder that feat. Like 43, he will operate in an environment where Islamic extremists and other anti-U.S. actors are emboldened by the status quo, and where the roadblocks to victory are disheartening and numerous. He should zero in on the following lessons from the Surge:
1. The national interest should always prevail over public opinion and short-term political calculations.
The decision to undertake the Surge was deeply unpopular. Many suggested that the U.S. should simply cuts its losses in Iraq, and leave. But the President would not allow himself to be beholden to the polls. He identified the root of the problem, relied on a clear-eyed view of the national interest to develop a response, let the strategy drive questions over resources, and moved ahead.
2. Recognize when your policy is failing and be willing to change it.
43 acknowledged that his previous approach was inadequate. He did not attempt to sugarcoat the reality of the situation nor did he try to define down America’s security requirements. He took ownership of the policy and defied serious resistance within his own administration to reverse course. That process required wisdom, acceptance of risk, and courage.
3. There is no viable substitute for American military power in certain crises.
It was clear in 2006 that Iraqi forces were incapable of regaining control amidst increasing sectarian violence. Yet we continued to transfer responsibility for security to these forces in order to pull back and eventually withdraw our own forces. A change in strategy proved critical to turning the war around, but it could not have been executed without a significant commitment of U.S. military forces moving out from their bases and stepping into the fight.
4. Military action is a critical component – not the totality – of a successful anti-Islamic extremist campaign.
With the Surge, the strategy shifted from handing tasks off to Iraqis to securing the population. Capturing and killing terrorists remained a vital priority, but the mission required a non-military track that included political reconciliation and economic development. This effort, advanced in coordination with military operations, gave us a chance to make sustainable security gains on the ground.
5. Securing the peace demands continued effort.
The Surge was not the ultimate solution to Iraq’s problems. The subsequent Iraq tragedy lies in U.S. policymakers’ failure to capitalize on success and chart a viable plan for the next phase of the war. Then-General David Petraeus cautioned in 2008 that the progress in Iraq – decreasing violence, a weakened al Qaeda, and positive movements toward a long-term political solution – remained fragile and would require a concerted U.S. effort to sustain. 44 largely neglected the mission in Iraq for a variety of reasons, which helped lead to our enemies’ resurgence.
The incoming administration will face a world even more dangerous and complex than the one that we faced in 2007. Yet some of the lessons from the Surge are enduring—and pertinent.
45 now has an opportunity to apply them in attempting to restore American national security