Obama, Democrats, and the Surge

Published July 18, 2008

The Weekly Standard, Volume 013, Issue 43

This is the week that the Democratic party ran up the white flag when it comes to the surge in Iraq. Leading the surrender was none other than Barack Obama, the Democratic party's presumptive nominee for president and among the most vocal critics of the counterinsurgency plan that has transformed the Iraq war from a potentially catastrophic loss to what may turn out to be a historically significant victory.

On Monday, Obama wrote a New York Times op-ed in which he acknowledged the success of the surge. “In the 18 months since President Bush announced the surge,” Obama wrote, “our troops have performed heroically in bringing down the level of violence. New tactics have protected the Iraqi population, and the Sunni tribes have rejected Al Qaeda–greatly weakening its effectiveness.” A day later, Obama gave a speech in which he declared for the first time that “true success” and “victory in Iraq” were possible. In addition, the Obama campaign scrubbed its presidential website to remove criticism of the surge.

The debate, then, is over, and the (landslide) verdict is in: The surge has been a tremendous success.

Obama, in typical fashion, is trying to use the success of the surge he opposed to justify his long-held commitment to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq as quickly as possible. But turning Iraq into a winning political issue won't be nearly as easy as Obama once thought. He has stepped into a trap of his own making.

The trap was set when Obama repeatedly insisted that his superior “judgment” on Iraq is more important than experience in national security affairs. Judgment, according to Obama, is what qualifies him to be commander in chief. So what can we discern about Obama's judgment on the surge, easily the most important national security decision since the Iraq war began in March 2003?

To answer that question, we need to revisit what Obama said about the surge around the time it was announced. In October 2006–three months before the president's new strategy was unveiled–Obama said, “It is clear at this point that we cannot, through putting in more troops or maintaining the presence that we have, expect that somehow the situation is going to improve, and we have to do something significant to break the pattern that we've been in right now.”

On January 10, 2007, the night the surge was announced, Obama declared, “I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq are going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse.” A week later, he insisted the surge strategy would “not prove to be one that changes the dynamics significantly.” And in reaction to the president's January 23 State of the Union address, Obama said,


I don't think the president's strategy is going to work. We went through two weeks of hearings on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; experts from across the spectrum–military and civilian, conservative and liberal–expressed great skepticism about it. My suggestion to the president has been that the only way we're going to change the dynamic in Iraq and start seeing political commendation is actually if we create a system of phased redeployment. And, frankly, the president, I think, has not been willing to consider that option, not because it's not militarily sound but because he continues to cling to the belief that somehow military solutions are going to lead to victory in Iraq.


In July, after evidence was amassing that the surge was working, Obama said, “My assessment is that the surge has not worked.”

Obama, then, was not only wrong about the surge; he was spectacularly wrong. And he continued to remain wrong even as mounting evidence of its success gave way to overwhelming evidence of its success.

But Obama is not alone. Virtually the entire Democratic party, including every Democrat running for president, opposed the surge. For example, Senator Joseph Biden–considered by some pundits a foreign policy sage–declared, a few days before the surge was announced, “If he surges another 20, 30 [thousand], or whatever number he's going to, into Baghdad, it'll be a tragic mistake.”

Hillary Clinton, on the night the surge was announced, said, “Based on the president's speech tonight, I cannot support his proposed escalation of the war in Iraq.”

Senator John Kerry said this in February 2007: “The simple fact is that sending in over 20,000 additional troops isn't the answer–in fact, it's a tragic mistake. It won't end the violence; it won't provide security;  .  .  .  it won't turn back the clock and avoid the civil war that is already underway; it won't deter terrorists, who have a completely different agenda; it won't rein in the militias.”

Kerry's fellow Massachusetts senator, Ted Kennedy, declared that any troop increase would be “an immense new mistake.”

Representative Dennis Kucinich, in this instance speaking for the mainstream of his party, put it this way: “It has been proven time and time again that troop surges don't work.”

In April 2007, Senate majority leader Harry Reid declared the Iraq war “lost” and insisted, “This surge is not accomplishing anything.”

Also in April, Senator Christopher Dodd said, “We don't need a surge of troops in Iraq–we need a surge of diplomacy and politics. Every knowledgeable person who has examined the Iraq situation for the past several years–Baker and Hamilton, senior military officials, junior officers–has drawn the same conclusion–there is no military solution in Iraq. To insist upon a surge is wrong.”

In September 2007, Senator Dick Durbin, the Democratic majority whip, in anticipation of congressional testimony by General Petraeus, said, “By carefully manipulating the statistics, the Bush-Petraeus report will try to persuade us that violence in Iraq is decreasing and thus the surge is working. Even if the figures were right, the conclusion is wrong.”

A month later Representative David Obey, asked if the surge strategy was working, offered the view that if violence is decreasing in Iraq, it may be because insurgents “are running out of people to kill.”

In February of this year, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked by CNN's Wolf Blitzer about the success of the surge in Iraq. “Are you not worried, though, that all the gains that have been achieved over the past year might be lost?” Blitzer asked.

“There haven't been gains, Wolf,” Pelosi replied. “The gains have not produced the desired effect, which is the reconciliation of Iraq. This is a failure. This is a failure.”

And as recently as last month, Governor Bill Richardson, when asked if he was ready to concede that John McCain had been right in proposing the surge because it seemed to be having a positive impact, answered, “Absolutely not.”

Democrats, then, have compounded their initial bad judgment about the surge with reckless obstinacy. As ethno-sectarian violence in Iraq rapidly declined, as al Qaeda absorbed tremendous military blows, and as political accommodation and legislative achievements have emerged, Democrats, rather than welcoming the progress, grew agitated. They embraced with religious zeal the belief that the Iraq war was lost; they therefore viewed the success of the surge as a terribly inconvenient development, one they sought to deny to the point that they looked silly and out of touch. Worse, Democrats acted as if they had a vested interest in an American defeat.

Rarely has a political party been so uniformly wrong, in such an obvious way, on such an important matter. And when Americans cast their vote on November 4, they should carefully consider how Barack Obama and the entire Democratic party fought ferociously and relentlessly to undermine a policy that has worked extraordinarily well and may yet prove to be among the most successful military plans in modern times.

— Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today