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Peter Beinart: GOP Uses The Surge To Squash Doubts About The Iraq Invasion

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

When Jeb Bush spoke about combating ISIS last night at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, he had what's becoming a familiar take on the war in Iraq and the subsequent rise of the self-styled Islamic State. Bush spoke of one moment that stood out as a turning point.

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JEB BUSH: And that was the surge of military and diplomatic operations that turned events toward victory. It was a success, brilliant, heroic and costly. And this nation will never forget the courage and sacrifice that made it all possible.

SIEGEL: The surge of U.S. forces in 2007 when President George W. Bush sent an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Iraq. Jeb Bush asked why was the successful surge followed by the withdrawal of forces under President Obama?

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BUSH: That premature withdrawal was the fatal error creating the void that ISIS moved in to fill and that Iran has exploited to the full as well.

SIEGEL: And he asked, rhetorically, where was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during all this? Well, in that part of his speech, of Jeb Bush was giving an increasingly common Republican version of what went wrong in Iraq. Journalist Peter Beinart, writing in The Atlantic, calls it the surge fallacy, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

PETER BEINART: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: In 2007, more U.S. troops went in. U.S. forces joined with Sunni Muslim tribes in pacifying their region of the country. Civilian deaths, as you write, started to fall. Where's the fallacy?

BEINART: The fallacy is that because the United States enjoyed military success in the surge, which we did, that that meant that the war in Iraq was won. It wasn't won. The surge was meant to have military success create a space for political reconciliation because only political reconciliation between Iraq's Sunni and Shia could ultimately bring the fighting in Iraq to an end. And that political reconciliation never happened. Even when the deaths went down and Iraq had less military conflict, there was no fundamental political reconciliation between Iraq's Sunni and Shia, which meant that you had put a Band-Aid on the problem. The war was never won.

SIEGEL: Do you think, though, that if in fact the Obama administration had been able to foresee the growth of al-Qaida in Iraq, its migration to Syria where it declared itself an Islamic State, its control of so much territory, do you think the U.S. would have withdrawn as much as it did?

BEINART: I don't want to suggest that the Obama administration is blameless, but I think the Obama administration's bigger failure was that they were not diplomatically engaged enough when former Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, the Shia prime minister of Iraq, started alienating his Sunni population so deeply. But some relatively small number of U.S. troops, I think, would not have been able to substitute for what was the fundamental reality - lack of political reconciliation.

SIEGEL: Does the mostly-Republican narrative of the victorious surge and the premature abandonment of Iraq - does it serve to blunt the question of why the U.S. went to war in Iraq in the first place?

BEINART: Yes. I think that's a very important part of it. I think that what's fascinating is that on the eve of the surge in 2006, there was a fundamental debate starting to take place in the Republican Party about the assumptions about America's role in the world that had produced this Iraq catastrophe. But that was a very painful assumption, and it threatened the supremacy of an entire class of people in the Republican foreign policy establishment. People latched onto the surge, essentially, does not have to have that debate. And that's what you're seeing in the Republican Party today - no grappling with the assumptions which led to the invasion of Iraq and the belief that the surge, basically in a post hoc way, justified our intervention in the first place. I think that's very, very dangerous. I think it's preventing Republicans from learning hard lessons about Iraq which have to do with the limitations of American military power, the limitations of America to refashion other countries in our image and a coming to terms with the fact that we have to make accommodations with governments, even governments that we have problems with like the government in Iran.

SIEGEL: Peter Beinart -his article in The Atlantic is called "The Surge Fallacy." Thanks for talking with us today.

BEINART: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.