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Petraeus: Surge Worked (and the President agrees)

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On Fox News Sunday today, General David Petraeus, Commander of US Central Command, responded to a pointed question from journalist Chris Wallace with a surprising answer. To the question, “Did the President ever acknowledge that the surge in Iraq was successful?” Petraeus answered “He did, in fact”.

Having seen this with my own eyes, I went in search of other media outlets that have reported on the exchange, knowing the desire of some readers to question any Fox News attribution. A wide collection of conservative blogs cite the interview, all with variations on the theme that this is the “first time” President Obama has admitted the surge worked. Politico, the widely read political blog that may be less offensive to some reader’s sensitive Source-o-Meter, reports the original answer and even reported the follow-up:

“Although I would also tell you we haven’t spent a lot of time looking at the rear-view mirrors of the bus,” Petraeus said, adding that they talked about how reconciliation worked in Iraq and how they achieved population security there.

Is this really the first time Mr. Obama has admitted the surge worked?

The unpopular war in Iraq was a potent political issue in the primary campaign leading up to the last presidential election. By summer of 2008, the declining violence was seen as validating the efficacy of the surge among its supporters. The likely Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, had been an early critic of President Bush’s handling of the war, and had long advocated a surge to bring the war to an end. By late July 2008, it was evident the tide had turned in Iraq, and most political observers thought this would work to the Republican’s favor.

But signs of then-Sen. Obama’s acceptance of the surge’s success can be found. ABC News reported on July 28, 2008:

Petraeus declined to comment about his meeting with the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, beyond saying that in their private talks, Obama conceded that progress had been made in Iraq.

By September 4, 2008, MSNBC was reporting candidate Obama’s stronger approval:

Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama said Thursday that the escalation of U.S. troops in Iraq, which he had opposed, has succeeded in reducing violence “beyond our wildest dreams.”

While the indications where there that Candidate Obama recognized the success of the counter-insurgency tactics of General Petraeus in Iraq, he tempered his remarks with a warning that political reconciliation was still out of reach, and ending the war in Iraq quickly was still his goal. But after the election, he has proven smart enough to not abandon a successful strategy, and continues on the path illuminated by General Petraeus.

It is no surprise, then, that the plan for Afghanistan is described by mainstream media op eds as a borrowed model. The Baltimore Sun’s Op Ed pages notes:

In crafting his Afghanistan troop surge, President Obama has borrowed liberally from an unlikely source: the playbook of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Testifying Wednesday before the Senate, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates wryly drew some comparisons between the two deployments–including the need to explain the strategies in front of skeptical lawmakers.

“This is the second surge I’ve been up here defending,” Gates said.

Conservative bloggers are calling the adoption of the COIN strategy for Afghanistan validation of President Bush’s approach, and are pointing to today’s “admission” as further proof. But the ice is thin under the claim: it must be remembered that the surge happened only after President Bush finally gave up the failed “small footprint” policy, fired the generals in charge of it, and installed General Petraeus. Fumbling into a successful strategy after several years of failure is hardly a notable achievement.

But Sen. McCain was there ahead of all of us.

Cross-posted to FrankHagan.com