Matt Yglesias has a good reaction post to the Sunday NYT story about Awakening Councils switching sides again in Iraq. I have two points here, one about how policy looks from the point of view of the president and one about elections and democracy; I'll tackle them in separate posts. So: I agree with what Yglesias says, especially that "there’s no genius “counterinsurgency” method here ready to be successfully deployed around the world."
I might disagree, however, with his claim that "nothing in Iraq has really been solved." George W. Bush had a real problem in late 2006 -- how to get out of Iraq without accepting the blame for defeat there. In that, the surge most definitely worked; at great cost (and it's important to remember that the surge months were basically the peak period for coalition losses), the surge achieved peace enough that Bush's subsequent actions could be spun and believed as that old elusive goal, Peace With Honor. Whatever the merits of the surge for long-term stability or a US-friendly future in Iraq, I think it's hard to see how Bush could have simply declared victory and pulled out in fall 2006 without further undermining his credibility. Of course, he could have done it anyway, but presidents are reluctant to undermine their credibility with good reason, at home and abroad -- not to mention that they're reluctant to just admit defeat in wars they began. Now, I'm not saying that it was "worth" some 1500 dead American soldiers to rescue what little remained of George W. Bush's shattered credibility at that point...just that he was in a legitimately awful situation by that point, and the surge "worked" to solve that, regardless of what happens in the long run.
(Just to be clear: I'm not saying at all that critics of the surge were wrong, just that whether it "worked" depends on what it was supposed to do. If the goal of the surge was to get Americans out in the medium run without George W. Bush getting the blame for "losing" a war, then I think it worked. It's worth keeping in mind that it was always presented as a temporary surge, not an escalation, and it was eventually executed that way. But none of this means it was the "right" policy in any overall, objective way...I tend to side with Yglesias on that, but it's one of those questions that's awful hard to answer definitively. And of course it has to be said whenever this comes up that Bush created the problem for himself by starting the war in Iraq without a reasonable plan for "victory," and then not actively managing the war for years).
The point here is that part of what democracies do is empower politicians, and that means, for better or worse, that what politicians care about turns out to matter. If it's true that the only thing that was bought by the surge was making sure that Iraq was not "lost" on Bush's watch...well, a lot of people will tell you that's a horrible thing (and, yes I'm using a lot of scare quotes in this item, because so many of these concepts are contested). But it's hard to see any way around that sort of thing in a representative democracy.