What Does Bush Mean by "Victory in Iraq"?
His grandiose definition makes defeat almost inevitable.
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.
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.