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The definition of "success" in war: Part I

The ISG report has branded our efforts in Iraq "grave," "deteriorating," and "not working."

The American people aren't too happy with the situation, either. Results of recent polls indicate:

Just 9 per cent expect the war to end in clear-cut victory, compared with 87 per cent who expect some sort of compromise settlement...

But what would "clear-cut victory" actually look like in the case of Iraq (or Iran, or Syria, or any number of other places, for that matter)? Do we know? To achieve "victory," is it necessary to have a country completely at peace, with guarantees of civil rights for all and a smoothly functioning democratic process?

Well, that would be victory, all right. But is anything short of that failure? Probably not. But, if not, where do we draw the line between the two? After all, a nation running as smoothly as that was always a highly unrealistic short-term goal for Iraq--and by "short-term" I mean anything less than a few decades, or even longer.

So, how should we define a realistic and relatively short-term (a couple of years) victory in Iraq? Although it's difficult to do so, it seems necessary in order to know whether we ever achieve it, or even come close to it.

Our early definition of victory in Iraq was simple, but very incomplete: deposing Saddam. That was done with relative ease, but had we left at that point the country would have devolved into chaos. Leaving prematurely is a big problem; in fact, the current Iraq War can be seen as an attempt to deal with the situation left by the very unfinished business of the first Gulf War, in which "success" was too narrowly defined.

Commenter Ymarsakar had this to say recently on the subject of success in this war versus previous, more traditional, ones:

The thing you have to remember about WWII...is that people could know whether victory or defeat was close by, by casualty lists and whether a battle was won or lost, territory gained or won. In a guerrila war as with Iraq, that doesn't seem very clear. I mean, the US won all the battles so far, and yet we have violence every day, but we control all the territory, but and but and but. The human mind is not wired for this kind of fight and flight, fight then flight then fight then flight then fight schism. Because it pulls you from one way to the other, and eventually you will shred.

One part of your mind says you are winning. No attacks, US soldiers winning battles, etc. Other side of your brain sees you are losing, loss of support, violence, more violence, American deaths, demoralizing stories, etc.

I've mentioned this before of course, but the agony of defeat in WWII or even the threat of it, actually galvanized morale and support. You don't have that now, because America itself is not being attacked and the world doesn't "look" like the terroists are gaining ground...

I think you know that the loss of the Pacific Fleet left the entire Western seaboard of America open to Japanese invasion. It was a palpable sense of dread and DEFEAT, the idea that you could lose. You NEED that for resolve. In Iraq, the idea that we will lose, is not there, but the idea that we "aren't winning" is there. So it creates friction.

One of President Bush's major communication failures was on the subject of what success would look like in this particular war. Some say it should have been limited to toppling Saddam, although that would have left the country in chaos. The traditional realpolitik solution would have been to have backed another strong man as replacement--a dictator, but "our" dictator--and hope for the best (the Shah of Iran was an example of this approach in the past).

Our venture in Iraq had a more lofty ultimate, long-term goal (although the amount of time and effort necessary to achieve that goal was poorly defined): to help the Iraqis towards a functioning democracy rather than a dictatorship, somewhat resembling the occupation of Japan and West Germany and the establishment of democracies there after WWII (and yes, the differences between Iraq and the those countries, as well as the perception of defeat by the populations involved, are profound) . Whether or not that goal could have been achieved with a more forceful and committed occupation in Iraq (see this for a discussion), or could still be achieved, there's no doubt that it has not been achieved at this point in time.

But Victor Davis Hanson points to the fact that the jihadis don't seem to think they've achieved success yet, either:

We forget that the jihadist websites are still worried about Iraq, both the losses suffered there, and the emergence of a democratic government. We think we are not winning, but so do they think they aren’t either.

Recently President Bush was careful to refer to the "pace of success" in Iraq as being too slow, rather than mentioning the "F" word, failure. He said:

You want frankness? I thought we would succeed quicker than we did. And I am disappointed by the pace of success.

Semantics, right? Not entirely. How something is framed does indeed affect our view of it.

There are many, of course, who would consider that comment of Bush's ludicrous: to them, it's obvious that our venture in Iraq is a failure already, and to speak of a slowed "pace of success" is merely Orwellian gobbledygook meant to keep us in a losing endeavor, spilling more blood and treasure just to protect Bush's pride.

There are others (and I am among them) who consider that failure (and premature withdrawal) in Iraq would not only be a tragedy for the Iraqi people and for the world, but would not even accomplish the goals its proponents think it will. This enemy and this fight cannot be avoided, and failure in Iraq (however it's defined) will only set up the next, and greater conflict.

The question of "will" in this war is one I've tackled before (here, for example). Part of will is to consider that failure is not an option, and to do whatever needs to be done to make sure it does not occur. But without defining either, we are at sea, especially in the sort of murky situation presented by asymmetrical wars.

In World War II the goals were so obvious there was no real need to define victory: unconditional surrender of the enemy, nothing less. In Vietnam things became more foggy, and part of the shock of the Pentagon Papers was that the goals the American people had assumed were those of our war effort there were revealed to have not been taken all that seriously by the Pentagon. Post-Vietnam, goals have not only been poorly articulated, but in the current conflict they are inherently difficult to define--this enemy will never formally surrender.

[Part II, planned for tomorrow, will be an attempt to explain why victory has been especially difficult to define and to pursue in this particular war.]

[ADDENDUM: Shrinkwrapped on a related theme.]


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