Today's New York Times reports that US troop casualties in Iraq have fallen to virtually the lowest point since hostilities there began. Only five US soldiers have been killed in combat since the beginning of July. This is welcome and heartening news, and combined with steadily decreasing civilian fatalities among Iraqis testifies to the effectiveness of the "troop surge" begun in January. It is clear that those who opposed or doubted the troop surge, including Barack Obama (and myself), were wrong. The surge has not cured all of Iraq's ills, but to deny that it has improved the situation in that country is simply tendentious.
Obama's judgment did not measure up to that of Senator John McCain in this matter, but it surpassed and continues to surpass it in virtually every other respect. The successes of the surge do not vindicate the decision to invade Iraq in the first place, nor are they likely to do so. Nor is the surge an end unto itself or a path to ultimate victory, as John McCain seems to view it. Iraq has, for the moment, been brought back from the brink of chaos, but it is still a society wracked by terrible discord and in peril of cataclysmic collapse. The danger of McCain's repeated rhetoric about how "the surge is working" is its potential to lull American policymakers back into the delusional mindset that brought on the Iraq war in the first place: the misbegotten belief that conditions in Iraq are ultimately under American control.
The surge is a testament to the valor and ingenuity of America's armed forces, but to recognize that reality does not negate the fact that none of the surge's effect would have been possible if the US had not found competent Iraqi partners in Nuri al-Maliki's government, the Iraqi Army, and the Anbar Awakening. The charge that "withdrawal=defeat" rests on the fallacious assumption that Iraqi society will tolerate a massive US troop presence indefinitely, a notion for which there has been no empirical proof (quite the contrary). The peace that has been won can only be kept if the responsibility for maintaining it can be successfully transfered to the Iraqi government, military, and police. Otherwise the gains of the surge will begin to unravel and chaos will return.
One might well object that having been wrong about the surge, its opponents are on poor ground to maintain that gradual disengagement is best suited to the likely dispositions of Iraqi society. This is to ignore much of the evidence that continues to fill daily newspapers, however. Though violence is down in Iraq, it cannot be called "low." The forces of entropy in Iraq may be fatigued, but they may also be playing a wait-and-see game in the run-up to the US election. Both, indeed, may be true at once. Though US troop casualties are down, the cost-per-troop of the Iraq mission (representing, in part, the extraordinary precautions that must be taken to ensure force security) are still astronomically high. Moreover, common sense dictates that any foreign force, whether of US soldiers or Martians, would face insuperable difficulties in keeping the peace in Iraq for the long term. Iraqi society is so deeply divided that it is almost impossible for any outside element to cultivate and maintain the role of "fair broker" between mutually hostile factions. In the long run, nothing can replace the Iraqis' negotiating a stable social contract among themselves, a process that will ultimately require the disengagement of US forces.
Senator McCain seems to think that his superior wisdom in supporting the surge should be an argument that carries him to the White House. That tack, however, opens the question of whose judgment was better with the regard to invading Iraq in the first place (if we are to argue the past...), and on that score Obama is likely to carry the argument for most Americans. They seem to feel, as I do, that whatever good news there has been of recent, the costs of the Iraq war have been too high and the risks are still very, very severe.
Obama would be well advised to remain focused on the future, though, because there he has a better argument than McCain as well. Withdrawal does not equal defeat, as McCain would contend. Disengagement from Iraq, rather, is the only path to potential victory. No peace in Iraq will endure unless it is one that the Iraqis themselves establish and superintend. Thus Obama is right that the long-term mission given to US commanders like David Petraeus should be to plan for and execute the ultimate disengagement of US combat forces from Iraq. This is the argument that Obama can wield very effectively against McCain this fall. Disengagement is the best way to honor the sacrifice of our troops, as disengagement is the only path that may yield the long-term fruits that could still be reaped from their struggle: a stable, prosperous, and sovereign Iraq.