A Confirmation for Petraeus Is a Confirmation of the Surge Narrative

Petraeus, the SurgeTwo nominees walk into the capital for their confirmation hearings on Tuesday morning. One is a war hero. The other, a lawyer. They meet under the great rotunda to give each other a little pep talk before what promises to be a long day. “I’m sick and tired of hearing about my lack of judicial experience,” the lawyer confesses. “No, problem,” says the war hero. “I have enough experience for the both of us. Take some of mine,” and he sprinkles a little of his experience dust over the top of her head. “Damn it,” says the lawyer, “Now I have a record.”

This conversation is, of course, imaginary. But it does illuminate a real difference between the issue of experience in the hearings to confirm Elena Kagan as Supreme Court justice and David Petraeus as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Kagan has never served as a judge. For this reason, Republican critics have argued that she simply isn’t qualified for the job. But Kagan’s hearings would likely be more heated if she had judicial experience. The very same critics would pore over her record to support their claim that she is just another liberal activist cloaked in a judge’s robe. Thus, experience can be a double-edged sword.

But this isn’t the case for the war hero. The widespread support for Petraeus as McChrystal’s replacement has revolved in large part around the general’s experience in Iraq. Echoing the news reports, in his opening remarks at the confirmation hearings, Senator Carl Levin underscored Petraeus’ “highly experienced leadership.” Other members of the committee followed suit. While several of them asked challenging questions about the current strategy in Afghanistan, nobody critiqued Petraeus’ experience in Iraq.

Experience is not a double-edged sword for Petraeus because of the bi-partisan consensus that the war in Iraq was ultimately a success, if not a victory. This consensus has emerged out of the surge narrative that has become so dominant in discussions of the Iraq War. According to this narrative, when Petraeus took over the war in 2007, he led a strategic revolution in Anbar province, where the Sunni insurgency was strongest. As a result of the counterinsurgency strategy implemented by Petraeus, the insurgency was persuaded to turn against Al Qaeda and throw its lot in with the U.S. The Anbar Awakening, as it is called, was a pivotal turning point in the war, after which the insurgency increasingly lost traction and momentum. Even Obama, who had been a sharp critic of the war in Iraq, has called the surge a success.

Ever since the surge narrative took root, there has been little public debate about the situation in Iraq. Thus, it is no surprise that, instead of an ongoing conflict, Iraq figured into the hearings as an historical event. It mattered only insofar as its success could be applied to Afghanistan. Along these lines, a few senators asked whether there might have been more popular support for the U.S. in Anbar province than in Marja, Afghanistan. But none of them asked whether the success in Anbar has led to long-term stability or effective governance in Iraq. If they had probed into the more recent history of Anbar, they would find a province wracked by political infighting that constantly threatens to self-destruct. The Awakening Party, whose members led the turnaround in 2007, has been accused of intimidation and corruption, and was unable to command the popular vote in last February’s election. Meanwhile, multinational companies are scrambling to get a piece of Anbar’s future oil and gas production, leaving it unclear whether and how the local population will actually benefit. While violence is down, it is far from certain that the Clear-Hold-Build strategy has had lasting success in the region.

When the Judiciary Committee asks a Supreme Court nominee to answer for their judicial decisions, it is less an interrogation of individual qualifications than a provocation for debating deeply engrained differences over the principles and values of our political system. Along the same lines, many progressives hoped that the change in command would prompt a discussion not of Petraeus’ qualifications, but rather, of the guiding principles and values of the war in Afghanistan. So far, the more complicated legacy of the surge in Iraq has been left out of that debate. The erasure of the long-term effects of counterinsurgency in Iraq does not bode well for Afghanistan, where corruption, lack of popular support for the government, and sooner or later, a battle over the country’s newly-discovered natural resources, similarly plagues the war effort. As T.S. Eliot wrote in the wake of the Great War, “We had the experience, but missed the meaning.”