October 20, 2008

What is "Victory" in Iraq?

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A debate painfully absent from the discourse on Iraq is the definition of victory. Pro-war politicians, including Senator McCain, talk about “victory with honor” but avoid the difficulties inherent in defining our victory in Iraq. Although occasionally articulated but never consistently, defining victory should be our most important concern going forward. After all, doing so would seem to be the necessary condition for actually achieving victory. Since, however, no one wants to take the risk and define victory, let me take a few stabs at piecing together possible scenarios that might satisfy what Senator McCain describes as “victory with honor.”

For the simplest definition, in 2003 victory could have been the defeat of Saddam Hussein and his Ba’athist regime. Of course such a definition is deeply problematic, ignoring the importance of the post-war settlement and reconstructing. Such a definition in turn sets us up for President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” moment that will forever live on in historic infamy. Given the quickly deteriorating security on the ground and evolving sectarian conflict, it was premature to declare victory to say the least. And that doesn’t even take into account the issue of honor. After all, the honor in eliminating a brutal authoritarian regime would seem pyrrhic if the situation were to degenerate into a genocidal civil war, as it was shaping up to be. Therefore, it’s easy to discount such a simplistic and military definition of victory as inappropriate.

Then there’s the idealistic vision of Iraq as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, a goal articulated inconsistently and never strongly until after we were already occupying the country. Certainly if we could create a stable and democratic Iraq it would be a clear victory for our military and validation of our values and way of life. And nothing would be more honorable than fostering other people’s freedom. Unfortunately, such an idealistic vision is fraught with complications, and with reality. At its core, any sort of deep transformation of Iraqi society would take generations- and with the American people bearing the cost in time, money and other resources. And a more problematic issue lies in the language of democratization itself. After all, what do we expect an Iraqi democracy to be? Does it have to be our democracy? Can it be a democracy based off of Islamic law or must it be secular? Is it enough to have elections, or does there need to be a deeper protection for rights and a rule of law? As for rights, are they individually based or communally based? It’s quite easy to see then that building a democratic Iraq has a lot more baggage attached to it than the administration anticipated and we’re paying the toll for its lack of foresight.

Like Goldilocks we’ve taken a look at both extremes and found them unfulfilling; now let’s see if we can find a compromising scenario that feels just right. Let’s say the definition for victory is a stable and responsible Iraqi government. Beyond the inherent problems in defining responsible government, let’s just assume that it’s a government that is not riddled with corruption or extremism and genuinely rules out of a concern for its people. Most importantly, this scenario does equate good government with liberal democracy. Perhaps this definition is more realistic, especially given our willingness to invest time and money. But does it have honor? Can mothers sleep at night knowing that their sons died not so much for freedom, but for stability in a foreign land? Good governance does not have the same ring to it that democracy does. It’s hard to say whether such a definition of victory would resonate with Americans, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Such a compromise would challenge some of our deep-held conceptions about America’s transformative power and would seem to compromise our values.

What’s clear is that the Iraq War has been defined by its lack of definition. There has never been a consistent, articulated vision of victory or a defined strategy to get there. We have only had reactive strategies, such as the surge, which although great for increasing stability, cannot provide anything more than time for producing the political settlement that Iraq needs in order to consolidate a stable and effective government. That’s a job that only the Iraqi people can do. Our military can only do so much and have done as much as they can. We cannot want democracy in Iraq more than the Iraqis do. With the Iraqi Parliament’s current insistence on revising the carefully agreed to Status of Forces Agreement and large anti-American protests in the country, it seems that we are being shown the door. Winning the peace is never easy and is never something we could do with the military. Troops can’t create political settlements, something our leaders didn’t seem to consider before launching this war. It would seen then that ultimate victory is dependent on the Iraqis, and the most we can do is act with honor, and sometimes that means knowing when to leave.