What does it mean to ‘win’ in Iraq?
When the current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was asked at his Senate confirmation hearing if we were winning the war in Iraq, he said what most members of the Bush Administration were afraid to utter in public: “No, sir.”
In some ways, it was an unfair and overly simplistic question. It’s all in how you define winning that counts. One could say we are winning in Iraq as long as we are killing more of the enemy than they are of our troops. Of course, if you accept that, we could keep winning the war almost indefinitely, as long as we are willing to pay the costs ” $250 million and two to three dead Americans per day, every day, until we run out of money and soldiers.
This appears to be the definition George W. Bush has of winning in Iraq. He has said that “the only way we lose is if we leave,” which the inverse to him means, we win if we stay, no matter how long it takes.
Unfortunately, that is not a definition of winning accepted by the American people. To most people, a war is won when the hostilities cease. Wars end, and that is a good thing. That is winning.
Three years ago, a majority of Americans thought we were winning the war in Iraq.
Now, a wide majority thinks we are losing, and wants the troops to come home. I saw a blog comment that explains this turnaround perfectly: Americans haven’t suddenly become anti-war; they are anti-losing. America loves a winner. Now if we can only define what winning is.
Too bad we couldn’t just say that we already won the war. Saddam is dead, weapons of mass destruction are gone, and the country has an elected government. Let’s declare victory and go home. That might have worked three years ago, but not now. Now, instead of winning, we seemed to be focused on how not to lose so badly that the entire Middle East goes up in flames.
Taking a look back at America’s first war and our first commander-in-chief, George Washington had a losing record. He was defeated in most of his battles against the British. Yet, he won the war. Winning by losing.
In a column last month in the Los Angeles Times by Joseph J. Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and expert on our first president, the author notices some similarities between the situations faced by the first George and the current one, and the concept of winning:
“(At) Valley Forge, Washington began to grasp an elemental idea: Namely, he did not have to win the war. Time and space were on his side. And no matter how many battles the British army won, it could not sustain control over the countryside unless it was enlarged 10-fold, at a cost that British voters would never support. Eventually the British would recognize that they faced an impossibly open-ended mission and would decide to abandon their North American empire. Which is exactly what happened.”
The comparison is pretty shocking. Here we are in Iraq, with our allies the British, fighting a war while forgetting how our first war against the British was won.
The insurgents in Iraq can win by not losing. We didn’t move fast enough at the beginning to crush them, and now we can only win if we greatly enlarge our forces, which we can’t afford to do.
And even if we pumped up our forces enough to quell the violence, we will most likely end up with a government dominated by radical Shiite forces, hostile to our interests and those of our allies in the region, allied with Iran and a threat to big chunk of world’s oil supply. That doesn’t sound like winning.
This is something the Bush administration needs to think about as they ponder escalating the war even further, desperate for victory, like a gambler at a roulette table who puts his last $20 on number 11.
I think I like the odds on roulette better than what we face in Iraq.
Kirk Caraway is editor of nevadapolitics.com, and also writes a blog on national issues at kirkcaraway.com.