In 2003 the United States attacked Iraq. Swift defeat of Iraq’s conventional forces then gave way to misstep after misstep. An insurgency arose among the minority Sunnis deposed from their long dominance by the American invasion. The Shi’ite majority demanded that the Americans leave as soon as possible so that they could get to the business of governing the country and settling scores. Al Qaeda in Iraq sought to foment a civil war that would make Iraq ungovernable and force an American evacuation. Foreign fighters poured into serve with Al Qaeda. By 2007 a disaster of epic proportions loomed before the Americans.
Then things began to turn around. Lower level American commanders began buying-off Sunni insurgents in their areas of operation. Many of the Sunni insurgents got fed up with the Al Qaeda fanatics. Together, these forces led to the “Sunni Awakening” that markedly reduced the level of violence from early in 2007. American special operations troops focused their efforts on killing the Al Qaeda fanatics. Civilian and military casualties began to fall. If only in comparison to the chaos visited on the country between 2003 and 2007, Iraq began to move toward something like a functional state.
Then and later, considerable energy has gone into myth-making about the turn-around. The commonly accepted—because commonly told—narrative is that the Bush administration belatedly developed a coherent and workable plan for victory in Iraq; General David Petraeus helped develop and then implemented an effective counter-insurgency strategy; and the “surge” of troops greatly enhanced security so that some form of national reconciliation could take place.
In fact, the Bush White House’s “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq” had neither substance nor application. “Victory” had been redefined to mean bringing down the level of violence to a point where responsibility could be handed off to the government of Iraq with something approaching a straight face.
In fact, the administration and the Pentagon were in search of a “hero” to revive American morale. They found that hero in General Petraeus, adept at both war and image-management. The buying-off of Sunni insurgents and the increasingly effective work of the special operations forces were well underway before General Petraeus arrived in Iraq. He endorsed and broadly applied the methods already developed.
In fact, although Chelsea Manning has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for giving classified documents to WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden has been hunted across the globe for having revealed NSA spying on Americans, officials in the Defense Department appear to have provided favored authors with a trove of classified documents.
In fact, what the United States achieved in Iraq was not victory, but avoiding defeat. By avoiding defeat the United States has also avoided any honest reckoning with the causes and consequences of a disastrous adventure that spanned two different presidential administrations. “The fraud is that a 20 year military effort to determine the fate of Iraq yielded something approximating a positive outcome.”
So says Andrew Bacevich, a professor of political science at Boston University, a combat veteran of Vietnam, a retired Army colonel, a grieving father to a son killed in action in Iraq, and a bitter and clear-eyed critic of recent American foreign and military policies.
 Andrew Bacevich, “Avoiding Defeat,” New York Times Book Review, 10 February 2013, pp. 20-21. Professor Bacevich reviewed Michael R. Gordon and Bernard Trainor, The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, From George W. Bush to Barack Obama (New York: Pantheon, 2012); and Stanley McChrystal, My Share of the Task: A Memoir (New York: Penguin, 2013).