What Does Bush Mean by "Victory in Iraq"?
His grandiose definition makes defeat almost inevitable.
Second, the Sunni Awakening is showing its frays. Some of these militias haven't been paid for months, and they're going on strike, refusing to man their checkpoints and battle stations. They are also frustrated by the Shiite-led government's refusal, despite earlier promises, to let them join the Iraqi national army and police force. This is another consequence of the sectarian leaders' failure to settle their disputes and form a unified government.
Finally, the Shiite militias have resumed attacks in southern Iraq, a sign either that Sadr is losing control over his men or that he himself is backing away from the moratorium. In either case, it's unlikely that many Sunni militias—especially given the training and reinforcements they've received from U.S. armed forces—will stand by as the Shiite militias start fighting again.
By the administration's own measures, then, victory in Iraq is not in sight, nor is there much evidence that the road we are treading will lead us toward that destiny.
And yet our president still seems to have little comprehension of what the war that he has spawned is all about.
A White House "fact sheet" titled "Five Years Later: New Strategy Improving Security in Iraq," posted on the occasion of the invasion's fifth anniversary, states:
Defeating the enemy in Iraq will make it less likely we will face this enemy here at home. The terrorists who murder the innocent in the streets of Baghdad also want to murder the innocent in the streets of American cities.
And so, once again, President Bush tries to link the war in Iraq to the attacks of Sept. 11. Once again, he pretends (or does he somehow believe?) that al-Qaida is "the enemy in Iraq." Would that things there were so clear-cut. One big difficulty about fighting in Iraq is that there is no single enemy. The overarching problems are disorder, sectarian strife, a weak central authority, and the absence of legitimate politics in the provinces. AQI is a menacing force, but it is also a small one. If it were destroyed tomorrow, Iraq would be only slightly less messy. (In one way, it might be more messy, at least in the short-run, as the Sunni insurgents who are now our allies would be expected to resume their fight against us after our common enemy is vanquished.)
Just as Bush mistakenly treats Iraq's myriad insurgencies as if they were one—thus making them appear (and perhaps making their warriors feel) mightier than they really are—so he also elevates the stakes of the war, and the requirements of victory, above and beyond any prospect that's feasible.
In his speech at the State Department on Monday, where he restated his goal of achieving "victory," he also said of the fallen soldiers in Iraq that "one day people will look back at this moment in history and say, 'Thank God there were courageous people willing to serve because they laid the foundations for peace for generations to come.' "
A wartime president who has no real allies and whose own military is too small to achieve such lofty goals should begin to scale back his rhetoric so that it has at least a patina of plausibility. By defining victory in Iraq as an outcome that lays "the foundations for peace for generations to come," George W. Bush ensures that defeat is nearly inevitable.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of U.S. soldiers in Iraq by David Furst/AFP/Getty Images.