Steve Chapman

When it comes to the Bush administration's strategy in Iraq, the Republican presidential candidates all seem to be auditioning for the lead in a remake of "Pollyanna." In their eyes, it has been the greatest triumph since the liberation of Paris.

John McCain crows that the Democratic presidential aspirants "continue to deny the facts on the ground that we are succeeding." Mitt Romney says "the surge is working." Mike Huckabee agrees. Rudy Giuliani boasts that he supported it from the start. Only the perennial skunk at the garden party, Ron Paul, declines to recite the catechism.

The GOP candidates are hardly alone in calling the surge, announced a year ago, a stunning success. The administration and its allies insist that the decline in violence and U.S. casualties are proof we have turned the corner. But as with alleged breakthroughs in the past, this one turns out to be composed mostly of wishful thinking and selective vision.

Even the claim of improved security is a major overstatement. True, American military casualties have dropped sharply over the past year, and many Iraqi neighborhoods are no longer the charnel houses they used to be. But Americans are still dying at the rate of one every day. And violent civilian Iraqi deaths, according to the independent website, have averaged about 1,000 a month since September.

That's far lower than in last January, but it's no better than in 2005, and it's well above the levels of 2004 -- when Iraq was already in the grip of bloody chaos. To pronounce that reduction a success is like driving your car into a lake and then bragging when you pull it halfway out.

The more sober supporters of the war recognize we have far to go. "Very real progress is anything but stable victory, even in the area where the U.S. and Iraqi surge has been most effective," writes Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The surge, he says, "has not brought lasting stability and security" even to Baghdad.

The surge itself may not be as important as another change in strategy -- joining forces with Sunni militias previously allied with al-Qaida. "Paying them not to blow us up" is how one American sergeant summarized it for the Los Angeles Times.

For the moment, at least, that tactic has served to quell attacks in some areas. But it comes at a high price: strengthening groups that, once we leave, may revolt against the Shiite-dominated central government.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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