From Abu Muquwama:
….We can argue about how many other factors aside from U.S. diplomatic and military operations led to the stunning drop in violence in 2007. There was a civil war in 2005 and 2006, tribes from al-Anbar “flipped” in 2006, and Muqtada al-Sadr decided to keep his troops out of the fight for reasons that are still not entirely clear. Those are just three factors which might not have had anything to do with U.S. operations. But there can be no denying that a space has indeed been created for a more or less peaceful political process to take place. Acts of heinous violence still take place in Baghdad, but so too does a relatively peaceful political process.
….Violence was a problem for Iraqi civilians and for the U.S. military. Reducing violence has unquestionably served humanitarian purposes in Iraq and has also saved American lives. But that has nothing to do with “conceptual space” or the broader “success” of the surge.
I mean, come on, if you’re going to write a post that essential expects to settle a debate like this one, snark and assertions much be balanced with rigorous analysis. But Exum doesn’t demonstrate any real understanding of the dynamics of violence in civil conflicts.
My suggestion is that you first read each gentleman’s posts in their entirety.
The first part of the dispute would be what is the standard of “success” that we are going to use to evaluate “the Surge”. I’m not certain that Exum and Finel, both of whom are experts in areas of national security and defense, would easily arrive at a consensus as to what that standard of measurement would be. Perhaps if they sat across from one another at a table and went back and forth for an hour or so. Or perhaps not. I have even less confidence that folks whose interests are primarily “gotcha” type partisan political point-scoring on the internet, rather than defense or foreign policy, could agree on a standard. Actually, I think people of that type would go to great lengths to avoid doing so but without agreement on a standard or standards the discussion degenerates into people shouting past one another.
In my view, “the Surge” was as much about domestic political requirements of the Bush administration after November 2006 as it was about the situation on the ground in Iraq. In my humble opinion, COIN was a better operational paradigm that what we had been doing previously in Iraq under Rumsfeld and Bremer, but the Bush administration accepted that change in military policy only out of desperation, as a life preserver. That isn’t either good or bad, it simply means that measuring the Surge is probably multidimensional and the importance of particular aspects depends on who you are. An Iraqi shopkeeper or insurgent has a different view from a USMC colonel or a blogger-political operative like Markos Moulitsas Zúñiga. Ultimately, the standard selected involves a level of arbitrary judgment. I can say the Surge was a success because the US was not forced to execute a fighting withdrawal from Iraq as some, like William Lind, was likely to happen but that’s probably not a narrow enough standard to measure the Surge fairly.
The second part of the dispute involves methodological validity, or “rigor” in making the evaluation, which was raised by Dr. Finel. I agree with Finel that in intellectual debate, rigor is a good thing. Generally in academia, where social scientists frequently suffer from a bad case of “physics envy”, this means unleashing the quants to build a mathematical model to isolate the hypothetical effects of a particular variable. I freely admit that I am not certain how this could be done in a situation as complex as the Iraqi insurgency-counterinsurgency in 2007 and still retain enough reliability to relate to reality. The act of isolating one variable is itself a gross distortion of the reality of war. There would have to be some kind of reasonable combination of quantitative and qualitative methods here to construct an argument that is comprehensive, rigorous and valid. I think Bernard should propose what that combination might be in approximate terms.
The third part of the dispute involves the medium for the rigorous argument over the Surge. I’d suggest that, generally, a blog post is not going to cut it for reasons intrinsic to the medium. First, blog posts have an unspoken requirement of brevity due the fact that audience reads them on a computer screen. While you can say something profound in just a few words, assembling satisfactory evidentiary proofs in a scholarly sense requires more space – such as that provided by a journal article or book. Blogging is good for a fast-paced exchange of ideas, brainstorming, speculation and, on occasion, investigative journalism. It’s a viral, dynamic medium. While there are examples of bloggers rising to levels of greater intellectual depth, these are exceptions rather than the rule in the blogosphere.
This is not a dispute that is going to be resolved because the parties are unlikely to find a common ground on which they can agree to stand.