When Is A Surge Not a Surge

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Following up on Joe’s comments from the other day — and on the hubbub McCain’s comments have caused in the blogosphere — allow me to present two widely divergent responses to the idea that the “so-called ‘surge'” inculcated/encouraged/allowed the “Anbar Awakening.” First, McCain says when he said “surge” he didn’t mean “surge,” he meant “a counter-insurgency strategy.” And since Army Col. Sean MacFarland started carrying out elements of counterinsurgency strategy as early as December 2006 — the pre-surge surge? — then, voila! The surge spurred the Anbar Awakening! The problem with this argument is that “the surge” is not, as I’m sure McCain would agree, a technical term. (The McCain camp once howled at Obama referring to leaving a “strike force” in Iraq exactly for its lack of a specific military meaning.)

McCain himself has used “the surge” to describe a few different aspects of Iraq strategy, including — as the feisty foreign policy wonks at Democracy Arsenal point out — the period before the surge. They have fun subbing his current definition of “surge” into the last time he got in trouble for talking about when it began. Two months ago, McCain told audiences, “I can tell you that it is succeeding. I can look you in the eye and tell you it’s succeeding. We have drawn down to pre-surge levels.”

Of course, U.S. forces hadn’t drawn down to “pre surge” levels. They are only now just getting back to 140,000, which is still above pre-surge levels. But that’s beside the point. What was McCain referring in that moment? Was he saying “We are drawing back down to where we were before Colonel McFarland started using counterinsurgency tactics in Anbar as part of the Anbar Awakening.” No, that is completely and patently absurd. He meant that we are coming back down to pre-January 2007 numbers when the “surge” actually began.

In fact, he added later:

“The surge, we have drawn down from the surge and we will complete that drawdown to the end — at the end of July. That’s just a factual statement.”

According to this statement John McCain is basically asserting that the surge is over. But based on his own definition today the “surge” actually equals the counterinsurgency strategy. So, is the counterinsurgency strategy over? I think that might be news to General Petraeus.

Now, semantics is not policy, and I imagine the important thing here is not what we call the change in strategy in Iraq, but what it accomplished. But McCain — famously, perhaps foolishly, certainly stubbornly — bet his entire campaign on that change in strategy, and on his assertion of a more sophisticated understanding of the situation in Iraq, and that is the standard that critics are holding him to. As for voters, well, maybe if someone writes a country song explaining the whole thing…

Actually, that would be helpful for me as well.