Written by Matthew Blake:

Back in July, support for the war in Iraq was at an all-time low, with prominent Republican Senators like Richard Lugar of Indiana and Pete Domenici of New Mexico advocating the need for an exit strategy. But then, as the New York Times notes Thursday, the White House unveiled a new campaign to sell the surge.

Key enlistees in this PR effort were Brookings Institution Senior Fellows Michael O’Hanlon and Ken Pollack. Their July 30 New York Times op-ed (“A War We Just Might Win“) and endless parade of subsequent public appearances supposedly lent credibility to the idea that US military commander David Petraeus (who invited his old Princeton buddy O’Hanlon over for a visit) was winning over Iraqis, leading to region-by-region improvements and an overall decrease in violence.

On Thursday, O’Hanlon and Pollack assembled at the National Press Club, along with four other Brookings colleagues, to evaluate the surge in the wake of Petraeus’ and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s testimony on Capitol Hill.

The panel reached a consensus that a real change in Iraq policy will only come with a new president. They also agreed–O’Hanlon and Pollack included–that the stated goal of the surge–to create space for political reconciliation–had not been achieved. Yet O’Hanlon and Pollack continued to put a positive spin on the war while their colleagues offered damning indictments.

O’Hanlon and Pollack both spoke of a “Sunni awakening” and credited the US military with gains in specific provinces such as Anbar and Mosul. “Petraeus and Crocker are pragmatic,” O’Hanlon said. “They adopted beyond the counterinsurgency manual.”

But their Brookings colleagues pointed out that the official name of the surge is the Baghdad Security Plan and Baghdad is neither secured as a city or a site for the national government. “The surge is not meeting its stated goals of buying time for Iraqi leaders to reach political reconciliation,” said Brookings Senior Fellow Philip Gordon.

And Gordon and his colleagues directly differed with O’Hanlon and Pollack on the question of whether the surge should be given more time to work.

“The bar for success in Iraq is falling so quickly that we better duck before it hits us on the head,” Gordon said. “Whatever happened to a model democracy?”

Brookings Middle East policy expert Bruce Reidel said the opportunity costs in Iraq are too great to stay. “You cannot judge this policy alone,” he said. “You put forces in some place and you can’t put them somewhere else.”

Brookings Senior Fellow Susan Rice, a foreign policy advisor to Senator Barack Obama, spoke of a “fundamental disconnect between our military strategy and the realities on the ground.”

“There is an insurgency and a raging civil war,” she said. “The surge is a counterinsurgency tactic not relevant to dealing with the civil war.”

And moderator Carlos Pascual ended the session noting, “Getting a country in the middle of a war to politically fix themselves is a departure from any historical precedent.”

Before the war, Brookings played a major role in drumming up support for the invasion among Democrats. Since then, most of its foreign policy, as evidenced by Thursday’s event, have become war opponents. We’ll see if these dissenting colleagues get to join O’Hanlon and Pollack on the talk show circuit.