General David H. Petraeus, commander of the American forces in Iraq, is more candid than his publicists in the media and on Capitol Hill. Unlike the senators and editorial writers who claim that the glorious "surge" should be hailed as one of the most successful military campaigns in history, he warns that the escalation's achievements are mixed at best — or as he put it, progress on the ground is "uneven," "fragile," and "reversible," with "innumerable challenges" remaining to be addressed.
His caveats cannot dampen the enthusiasm of the politicians and pundits who would maintain the occupation of Iraq and even expand our aggressive presence in the Middle East. Selling that policy requires propaganda proving that the surge is succeeding and that if we only stay long enough, spend enough money, and sacrifice enough young men and women, then someday we will achieve a great victory. We're "closer," says the general, carefully.
Yes, everything is getting better and better every day in Iraq, and it will always be getting better and better, even if we have to stay for a hundred or a thousand years.
To promote these illusions, Senator John McCain and his sidekicks, Senators Lindsay Graham and Joe Lieberman, repeatedly cite statistics showing violence has fallen since last summer, a trend that was real, while neglecting to mention the more ominous recent toll, which is equally real. Both American and Iraqi casualties have been rising since the low point in December 2007 and with greater velocity over the past several weeks. A dozen American troops died within the few days before Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker appeared on Capitol Hill to report, an average that harks back to the war's most lethal months.
The worsening casualties reflect the Iraqi government's blundering assault on the militias and strongholds of Moktada al-Sadr, which exposed its own military deficiencies just in time for the Petraeus-Crocker show. To McCain and his cohorts, the aborted battle of Basra showed the "progress made by the Iraqi security forces," as he wrote in the right-wing weekly Human Events, blithely ignoring mass desertions by thousands of Iraqi officers and troops.
With that kind of progress, victory must be only decades away.
Meanwhile, the lives of ordinary Iraqis are hellish, despite the billions of dollars flowing into the government treasury every day from rising oil revenues. Despite the enormous budget surplus enjoyed by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the United Nations humanitarian agency recently reported that between 4 and 9 percent of Iraqi children under age 5 suffer from malnutrition. More than five years after the invasion, most Iraqis still have no reliable electricity, medical care, employment, or even clean water.
Yet New York Times columnist David Brooks eagerly tells us that the Iraqi people are more optimistic than they were last year, quoting an ABC News poll conducted in March. And nearly half say the U.S. was right to overthrow Saddam, he announced with an air of triumph. He omits the less comforting findings of the poll, which showed that 42 percent of Iraqis still also consider it "acceptable" to attack American troops, 61 percent believe the presence of our troops is making security worse rather than better, and only 26 percent support the occupation.
What the ABC News survey actually reveals is that Iraqis remain profoundly divided along sectarian and ethnic lines. Despite the "awakening" of tribal opposition to al-Qaeda among the Sunni, for example, they remain extremely hostile to the U.S. and the Shia-dominated government, as do the Shia masses loyal to the Sadrist movement.
Those persistent divisions — and the irresistible impulse of every faction to manipulate us to their advantage — have blocked the political reconciliation that was supposed to be the ultimate objective of the surge. Lieberman and Graham praise "benchmark legislation" passed by the Iraqi parliament on amnesty, provincial elections, and other issues. But a recent report issued by the United States Institute for Peace, an official nonpartisan institution funded by Congress, disparaged the supposed advances by the Iraqi government, which it described as "tactical horse-trading'' designed to acknowledge those benchmarks as minimally as possible.
The proponents of war and occupation gladly accept this benchmarks charade along with all the other deceptions and corruption because their eyes are fixed on the eastern horizon. McCain and his friends constantly proclaim that our fight in Iraq "cannot be separated from our larger struggle to prevent the emergence of an Iranian-dominated Middle East." In other words, their remedy for the destructive consequences of this war is a wider and even more dangerous conflict.
Joe Conason writes for Salon.com and The New York Observer.