Before Gen. David Petraeus's report, and to give it a context of optimism, the president visited Iraq's Anbar province to underscore the success of the surge in making some hitherto anarchic areas less so. More significant, however, was that the president did not visit Baghdad. This underscored the fact that the surge has failed, as measured by the president's and Petraeus's standards of success.
The purpose of the surge, they said, is to buy time -- "breathing space," the president says -- for Iraqi political reconciliation. Because progress toward that has been negligible, there is no satisfactory answer to this question: What is the U.S. military mission in Iraq?
Many of those who insist that the surge is a harbinger of U.S. victory in Iraq are making the same mistake they made in 1991 when they urged an advance on Baghdad, and in 2003 when they underestimated the challenge of building democracy there. The mistake is exaggerating the relevance of U.S. military power to achieve political progress in a society riven by ethnic and sectarian hatreds. America's military leaders, who are professional realists, do not make this mistake.
A democracy, wrote the diplomat and scholar George Kennan, "fights for the very reason that it was forced to go to war. It fights to punish the power that was rash enough and hostile enough to provoke it -- to teach that power a lesson it will not forget, to prevent the thing from happening again. Such a war must be carried to the bitter end." Which is why "unconditional surrender" was a natural U.S. goal in World War II and why Americans were so uncomfortable with three "wars of choice" since then -- in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.
What "forced" America to go to war in 2003 -- the "gathering danger" of weapons of mass destruction -- was fictitious. That is one reason this war will not be fought, at least not by Americans, to the bitter end. The end of the war will, however, be bitter for Americans, partly because the president's decision to visit Iraq without visiting its capital confirmed the flimsiness of the fallback rationale for the war -- the creation of a unified, pluralist Iraq.