As the toll of Americans killed in Iraq topped 4,000 this week, President Bush publicly vowed"to make sure that those lives were not lost in vain"—that the war's outcome "will merit the sacrifice" and that "our strategy going forward" will be to "achieve victory."
We all wish that this were so. But what does he mean by "victory"?
The definition has evolved, or devolved, in the five years that this war has been raging. Originally, victory was conceived in grandiose terms. The defeat of Saddam Hussein's army and the toppling of his regime would spawn a new democratic Iraq, the example of which would ignite the flames of freedom across the Middle East.
Bush scaled back the standard in a November 2005 speech at the U.S. Naval Academy titled "A Strategy for Victory." This victory will come, he said, "when the terrorists and Saddamists can no longer threaten Iraq's democracy, when the Iraqi security forces can provide for the safety of their own citizens, and when Iraq is not a safe-haven for terrorists to plot new attacks on our nation."
In January 2007, the National Security Council formalized the concept in a document titled "The Iraq Strategy Review," which stated that the "strategic goal" was "a unified democratic federal Iraq that can govern itself, defend itself, and sustain itself, and is an ally in the War on Terror."
Bush and others have heralded much progress in the past year, as the troop surge went into effect and as Gen. David Petraeus devised new tactics based on counterinsurgency principles. Casualties have gone down, in some areas dramatically. The Iraqi army and police have grown in size.
However, by the Bush administration's own standards of success, laid out in the president's speech and the NSC's strategy review, we are no closer to victory now than we were when those documents were drafted. Iraq is not unified, it is only superficially democratic, it cannot govern itself, its security forces cannot provide for the safety of its citizens, and it remains more of a haven for terrorists than an ally in the war against them.
Gen. Petraeus has said many times that there is no strictly military victory to be had in Iraq. The goal of the surge—and, at this point, of the U.S. military presence generally—is to provide enough security, especially in Baghdad, to let the Iraqi factions settle their sectarian disputes and form a unified government. If this political goal isn't achieved, then the surge will have been for naught. And lately, Petraeus has expressed disappointment that the Iraqis have made so little progress on that path.
The instances of progress, especially the reduced casualties (among American soldiers and Iraqi civilians), are valuable for their own sake. But body counts have never proved much. When Americans killed more guerrillas in Vietnam, it didn't mean that we were closer to winning that war. And when insurgents are killing fewer Americans in Iraq today, it doesn't mean that we're closer to winning this war, either. (If you think that it does, you would have to conclude that we're closer to losing the war this month than we were last month because casualties have gone back up.)
The troop surge has been one of several factors that have made life a little less treacherous in Iraq this past year. Another is the "Sunni Awakening," the alliances of convenience between U.S. forces and Sunni insurgents against the common enemy of al-Qaida in Iraq—alliances that were initiated by the Sunnis before the surge began. Still another is the moratorium on violence called by the leading Shiite militia leader, Muqtada Sadr.
But look at what is happening. First, the surge is ending this July, not because it has been successful (as Bush has sometimes claimed) but because of simple math. The five extra combat brigades, which were deployed to Iraq with the surge, each have 15-month tours of duty; the 15 months will be up in July; the final brigade will go home; and the U.S. Army and Marines have no combat brigades ready to replace them. To the extent that the surge has improved life in Baghdad, the end of the surge (the timing of which is inexorable) may make life worse.
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.