Victory, But …

To listen to the rhetoric, the United States is either on the cusp of midwifing a modern Jeffersonian democracy in Iraq and the naysayers are potentially disloyal Americans who don’t care about the troops and are giving comfort to the enemy. Or, the entire enterprise is about to go down in flames and the only way to solve the mess is to get out as quickly as possible because victory’s not possible. Oh, and President Bush hates the troops.

Actually, Rep. John Murtha does have one very good point:

Staying the course in Iraq is not an option or a policy.

That statement is particularly meaningful to me. For the past three years, I’ve more or less advocated staying the course, not withdrawing from Iraq. While I’ve never believed that victory is around the corner, I nevertheless knew — in a way that that hardcore peaceniks refuse to admit — that withdrawing from Iraq wasn’t really an option. If victory wasn’t around the corner, then it was certainly unattainable if the United States withdrew from the fight and left the nascent Iraqi government to its own devices.

My position was rather inflexible. But last week, I read something that changed how I think about the occupation and rebuilding of Iraq. Now, i wonder whether victory is possible at all.

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Not that I favor instant withdrawal or anything that drastic. Rather, this Washington Post op-ed written by Anne Applebaum and published Dec. 7, offers some food for thought. A sample:

[W]hat if all of this vocabulary — winning, losing, victory, defeat — is simply misplaced? There are, after all, wars that are not actually won or lost. There are wars that achieve some of their goals, that result only in partial solutions and that leave much business unfinished. There are wars that do not end with helicopters evacuating Americans from the embassy roof but that do not produce a victorious march into Berlin, either. There are wars that end ambivalently — wars, for example, such as the one we fought in Korea.

Applebaum builds a persuasive Korea analogy, pointing out that Iraq may turn out as a mixed victory and loss. The new Iraqi government may be democratically elected, but corrupt. Saddam could be displaced, but the succesor government may be weak and hostile to U.S. interests.

And so forth, all leading to a war effort where the result is not 100 percent of what we expected when the United States went into Iraq, but will probably be a “victory but” situation — something that is not pleasant for any partisan in this war debate to accept. “Withdraw now,” “Withdraw later,” “Plan for victory and “Stay the course” are great applause lines. But as reality-grounded policy, they are utterly useless. How disappointing.

The United States can accomplish quite a bit of good in Iraq and the Middle East, and it already has done so. But any realistic assessment of Iraq requires that the U.S. government also assess, candidly, what can reasonably be accomplished in the region, accept those limitations, and worth within them to accomplish as much good as it can.

Without this admission of reality — played out in public — the U.S. military could find itself in Iraq fighting a mission without clear-cut, attainable objectives. And there would be no victory in that.

Pennywit once tried to hit the broad side of a barn with a rifle, but the barn kept moving.

Bonfire of the Vanities #128 - Reminder
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