Gen. David Petraeus says the Iraq war is going well, and I believe him. I believe him the way I believe the coach of a perennial football doormat who, every August, assures fans he expects a winning season. Coaches don't get paid to admit they're bound to lose, and generals who are tasked with military missions don't get paid to announce that they can't get the job done.
General Petraeus is, by all accounts, an experienced, capable and intelligent commander. So when he says that "the security situation in Iraq is improving," the natural impulse is to trust his battle-seasoned judgment. The Bush administration encourages this notion by suggesting that the opinions of military commanders are the only sound guide to policy.
But if high-ranking military officers are a good barometer of the future, where are the generals who told Americans when things were about to get worse in Iraq, as they have over and over? Which of them warned that insurgent attacks would steadily proliferate in 2005, after elections that were supposed to quell violence? What guy with stars on his shoulders forecast that Iraqi civilian deaths would double over the course of 2006?
Not the top brass, which has consistently taken an optimistic public stance. In November 2003, Gen. John P. Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, said achieving victory would require hard work but said "it will be done." In November 2004, Marine Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler said we had "broken the back of the insurgency." In March 2006, General Abizaid assured us, "We are winning." Three years ago, General Petraeus said that "18 months after entering Iraq, I see tangible progress."
Despite all these cheery soundings, things didn't improve. That's why this year, the administration was forced to increase our troop strength in Iraq by nearly 25 percent in a desperate attempt to reverse the debacle. If the generals had been right about trends in the past, the surge would not have been needed.
General Petraeus once again detects signs of progress, but it all depends on your definition of "better." His charts indicate that insurgent attacks and Iraqi civilian deaths have declined significantly since December 2006. What he doesn't mention is that they are still higher than they were in the first three years of the war.
His plan to withdraw 30,000 troops by next summer would merely mean reverting to the number we had before the surge. Assuming he's right, we'll have spent a year and a half making an arduous journey from Point A to Point A.
It's not even clear his figures can be believed. Numbers provided by the Iraqi government, according to the Los Angeles Times, indicate that the slaughter of Iraqi civilians has grown since the surge began. An Associated Press count determined that the civilian death toll in August was the second-highest monthly total this year.
Given all the talk about subsiding violence, you'd expect Iraqis to notice. But a new poll conducted by ABC News, the BBC and the Japanese broadcaster NHK found that only 11 percent of Iraqis think overall security is better today than it was before the surge.
If confident predictions by generals could be taken as gospel, this war would have been over long ago. But the totality of evidence gives no more reason to think we will do any better in the future than in the past. Given the choice, it's better to have commanders who believe they can overcome any adversity than commanders who are easily discouraged. But sometimes, optimism is just another word for self-delusion.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.