Thanks to a fragile but real improvement in the security situation in Iraq, it has become possible to imagine the United States and its allies achieving what could plausibly be described as a win. But a win how defined, and with what implications? We asked a diverse group of observers to ponder these questions.
The answer to the question “What if we win?” obviously depends on the definition of “winning.” I take this to mean the following: Security trends already established in the “surge” continue on their positive course, the level of violence drops to tolerable levels, the capacity of Iraq’s own security forces improves, and the central government holds together such that the United States could contemplate drawing down forces in a major way without all hell breaking loose. The government will still be weak, corrupt and divided, but it will at least continue to govern. Postulating more than this, like the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East, would make the present exercise circular and pointless.
Ironically, “victory” in this sense will pose the greatest problems for a Democratic president in January 2009. There would be a positive baseline of security that would only deteriorate if the United States withdrew troops quickly, and therefore considerable pressure not to fulfill campaign promises for a rapid drawdown. If we can posit victory in this sense, we can also posit conditions permitting full withdrawal, but it is very hard to see how this will happen except over an extended, and therefore politically uncomfortable, period. The big question will be how the different political actors will interpret the legacy of such a “win.” As far as actors in the region are concerned, a win will staunch the bleeding in terms of the American reputation, but the moment for a positive demonstration effect emanating from the replacement of Saddam by a democratic Iraq has long since passed. Acceptance of this new made-in-the-USA player by the surrounding Arab countries will happen, but it will be slow and grudging. A lot will ride on the kind of residual forces the United States sees fit to maintain in Iraq. Under the best of scenarios, Iraq will never become Germany, Japan or South Korea, where permanently based U.S. forces become part of a regional security network. A long-term U.S. presence in Iraq, even a small and unobtrusive one, will undercut the legitimacy of the regime in Baghdad.
There is one important contradiction embedded in a “win” as defined above. The United States cannot win without Iran also winning, that is, by acquiring a client in at least southern Iraq over which it will ultimately have much more influence than the United States. This will very much diminish the value of victory, unless we somehow posit further developments like regime change in Tehran or a split between Tehran and its Iraqi clients—neither of which seems likely any time in the near future.
The other big question is how such a win will be interpreted in the United States, and what sorts of precedents it sets for future use of force. Since most Republican presidential candidates today aren’t willing to admit that the Bush Administration made any major mistakes to begin with—John McCain and Ron Paul being the very differently minded exceptions—a win will see them arguing that the Bush doctrine was vindicated in the end. On the other hand, Democrats will point out that the win will have cost the country perhaps a trillion dollars, several tens of thousands of American dead and wounded, and an intangible but real moral diminution of American prestige. They will argue, as Pyrrhus once did, that “another victory like that and we are done for.”
Given the current divided state of our politics, a win is likely to transform the recent debates over the war into a prolonged struggle over the interpretive narrative of the war seen in retrospect. But as a practical matter it will be some time before the United States is prepared to launch another war. Before the Iraq war, I remember foreign policy specialists speculating about how we should be prepared to “take down Pakistan” in the event of instability there, a kind of hubris I think no short-term win in Iraq is likely to resurrect.
Terrence Malick’s 1973 film Badlands portrayed two teenagers (played by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek) who go on a shooting spree out West, killing the girl’s father and a series of innocent strangers who happen to get in their way. Remarkably, they maintain a cheerful belief in their own fundamental innocence to the end; even the arresting officers who finally track them down cannot help but feel drawn to them. I always thought that there was something very American about these teenagers, by which I don’t mean that Americans or America are like criminals. But there is something very American in our desire to believe in our own good intentions despite the manifest evidence that we periodically do dumb things that cause enormous damage as we careen through the world. I think that some greater introspection is called for at the present moment, something that should render our calling whatever transpires in Iraq a “win” less likely.