Donald Trump will take stewardship of U.S. national security Friday, and he will be confronting emboldened enemies across the globe. President George W. Bush’s wartime experience ten years ago in creating the Iraq “Surge” contains important lessons for the president-elect in dealing with the threatening road ahead. He should embrace them.
Some background: by late 2006, the Iraq war looked bleak. Al Qaeda and Iranian-backed forces were on the march, and U.S.-backed government troops were reeling. At home, a significant portion of the American public was disenchanted with the conflict. Members of Congress, including Republicans, were increasingly skeptical of the mission. The U.S. appeared headed for defeat.
In January 2007, President Bush announced that the U.S. would change course in Iraq to reverse the tide of the war. His decision to set in motion the 2007-2008 “Surge” of more than 20,000 additional U.S. troops – armed with a new strategy – pulled Iraq back from the abyss, decimated jihadist and Iranian terror networks, and provided an opportunity for emergence of a state amenable to long-term American interests in the Middle East.
President-elect Trump would do well to ponder that feat. Like President Bush, he will operate in an environment where Islamic extremists and other anti-U.S. actors are emboldened by the status quo, and where the roadblocks to victory are disheartening and numerous. He should zero in on the following lessons from the Surge:
1. The national interest should always prevail over public opinion and short-term political calculations. The decision to undertake the Surge was deeply unpopular. Many suggested that the U.S. should simply cuts its losses in Iraq, and leave. But the President would not allow himself to be beholden to the polls. He identified the root of the problem, relied on a clear-eyed view of the national interest to develop a response, let the strategy drive questions over resources, and moved ahead.
2. Recognize when your policy is failing and be willing to change it. President Bush acknowledged that his previous approach was inadequate. He did not attempt to sugarcoat the reality of the situation nor did he try to define down America’s security requirements. He took ownership of the policy and defied serious resistance within his own administration to reverse course. That process required wisdom, acceptance of risk, and courage.
3. There is no viable substitute for American military power in certain crises. It was clear in 2006 that Iraqi forces were incapable of regaining control amidst increasing sectarian violence. Yet we continued to transfer responsibility for security to these forces in order to pull back and eventually withdraw our own forces. A change in strategy proved critical to turning the war around, but it could not have been executed without a significant commitment of U.S. military forces moving out from their bases and stepping into the fight.
4. Military action is a critical component – not the totality – of a successful anti-Islamic extremist campaign. With the Surge, the strategy shifted from handing tasks off to Iraqis to securing the population. Capturing and killing terrorists remained a vital priority, but the mission required a non-military track that included political reconciliation and economic development. This effort, advanced in coordination with military operations, gave us a chance to make sustainable security gains on the ground.
5. Securing the peace demands continued effort. The Surge was not the ultimate solution to Iraq’s problems. The subsequent Iraq tragedy lies in U.S. policymakers’ failure to capitalize on success and chart a viable plan for the next phase of the war. Then-General David Petraeus cautioned in 2008 that the progress in Iraq – decreasing violence, a weakened al Qaeda, and positive movements toward a long-term political solution – remained fragile and would require a concerted U.S. effort to sustain. President Barack Obama largely neglected the mission in Iraq for a variety of reasons, which helped lead to our enemies’ resurgence.
The incoming administration will face a world even more dangerous and complex than the one that we faced in 2007. Yet some of the lessons from the Surge are enduring—and pertinent.
President-elect Trump now has an opportunity to apply them in attempting to restore American national security.