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.
After several months in which the news from Iraq has steadily if spottily improved, the time has come to think about what just a few months ago seemed unthinkable—the possible consequences of an outcome that Americans could, not implausibly, call victory.
Now, the news from Iraq could still turn much worse, and even if the improvement continues, there could still be many twists and turns along the road. At the end of the day, what we are likely to see in Iraq will almost certainly fall far short of the high hopes the Bush Administration once had for a transformed and democratic Iraq that would inspire the region toward rapid democratic change. And given the high costs of the war—the casualties among both Americans and Iraqis, the political cost in terms of international credibility and good will, the failure to find the kind of WMD program that could have justified both the Administration’s rush to war, the brash, confrontational nature of its international diplomacy at the time, the opportunity cost in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and the financial costs—almost any realistic outcome will allow Bush critics to argue that it wasn’t worth it.
I continue to see victory in Iraq in negative rather than positive terms—as avoiding a set of unacceptable outcomes rather than achieving an idealized vision of a new and democratic Iraq. In other words, from my point of view, an American victory in Iraq at this point would consist of clearly defeating the Sunni nationalist and jihadi insurgencies that once threatened to plunge much of the country into permanent chaos, preventing the emergence of an Iraqi government that becomes an Iranian satellite, and ensuring that any remaining violence and disorder in Iraq does not develop into a source of instability that radicalizes and destabilizes the whole region. Any outcome in Iraq that avoids these conditions would strike me as a victory for the United States—and for the people of Iraq. If there were more—if Iraq’s government were to become to some degree democratic or at least representative and pluralistic, if the benefits of the country’s oil wealth could be shared among the population, if new stability and pluralism did provide some hope for the region—then so much the better.
Nevertheless, even a partial, inconclusive and contested “win” for the United States in Iraq could have significant consequences both in the United States and beyond. First, the prestige of the American military could be significantly enhanced, both at home and abroad. For a liberal democracy to carry out a successful counterinsurgency campaign under a media spotlight is difficult under any circumstances. Many critics of the Iraq war effort argued consistently that such a victory was impossible, and that therefore the only possible course was to stage an American withdrawal in the least humiliating and disruptive way possible. Others, at home and abroad, argued that American military power reflected technological superiority and large budgets, but that both the American military and American society lacked the will and the ability to prevail in tough ground combat.
Defeating al-Qaeda and other Sunni insurgents, while persuading both Sunni and Shi‘a militias in Iraq to pursue their goals through non-military channels, would be a substantial and striking victory in the face of this simple-minded conventional thinking. The American military would emerge from Iraq tempered and tested rather than broken, with a demonstrated capability at counterinsurgency in the Middle East. This could end up a significant factor in international affairs, because it could suggest that the approach of countering American military strength by concentrating on asymmetric warfare might not be quite as promising as some had hoped.
The close personal relationships that U.S. officers have formed with their counterparts in the emerging Iraqi security forces could also play a significant role in regional politics. For the next thirty years, Americans and Iraqis who have learned to respect and understand each other during this war will occupy senior positions in both military establishments. The Pentagon is much better and much more experienced at cultivating individual and institutional military-to-military relationships than many civilian observers understand. A deep and intimate relationship with the security forces of the new Iraqi state is likely to be a significant asset for American foreign policy well into the future.
In domestic American politics, the military would emerge from even a modest and moderate success in Iraq with dramatically enhanced prestige. Future presidents would have a much harder time going to war against military advice, and future war critics would have an even harder time getting support for votes to cut funding for unpopular but perhaps necessary wars.
Overall, one might see a somewhat more mature attitude in America toward the use of force: Given the huge costs of the Iraq war and the military’s general caution about going to war, the United States may be a little less quick on the trigger than the Bush Administration was in Iraq. On the other hand, once the United States is engaged, the public’s instinct to stay the course and persevere may be stronger.
When it comes to the Middle East, the one thing we know we won’t see is a peaceful, happy region where American leadership is trusted and popular. The confrontation with Iran remains explosively dangerous. Vast swathes of Arab public opinion remain profoundly hostile and suspicious. The war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan remains fiendishly complex and difficult. U.S.-Turkish relations, while happily on the mend, cannot quickly recover from the shocks of recent years, and the Turkish-Iraqi border is likely to remain a troubled one. The Israel-Palestine issue shows no sign of resolution. The Middle East will for the foreseeable future remain combustible, agitated by deep waves of anti-American and anti-Western passion, and it will also continue to be the most important source of the hydrocarbon fuels on which the world economy will continue to depend.
But victory, however qualified, will help in a region where the United States will continue to have vital interests in play. Some of these consequences have already been felt. There is some significant polling evidence that, despite constant and even growing dislike of the United States, support for suicide bombing and other terror tactics has fallen in the Arab world in recent years. Al-Jazeera footage of bombs going off in Iraqi markets has not inspired a generation to join al-Qaeda; it has filled far more people with loathing and horror at the gruesome consequences of this form of war. The victims are Arabs, not Americans or Israelis. As the Arab world has watched the insurgency in Iraq with unprecedented immediacy, traditional Arab and Islamic teachings against anarchy and rebellion look more sensible than ever.
Defeat for the insurgents will only strengthen this view. Al-Qaeda will be seen, correctly, as having employed unacceptable tactics and imposed unendurable suffering in Iraq, while achieving nothing. This conspicuous and corrosive failure will not only weaken the appeal of jihadi extremists; it will also strengthen the claims of traditional, sensible religious teachers to speak for the core values of Islamic religion and civilization.
None of this will dim al-Qaeda’s appeal to a certain stratum of alienated youth (including, alas, Muslim youth in parts of Europe). In particularly troubled regions like the West Bank, Gaza, Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, terror movements will likely continue to enjoy broader support. But on the whole and throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, a military defeat for al-Qaeda and the jihadists in Iraq translates into a political and moral defeat whose effects will reverberate widely for some time to come.
If in the fullness of time victory in Iraq allows the transfer of resources that can bring about a political settlement in Afghanistan on something approaching NATO’s terms, the founding myth of al-Qaeda will sustain another heavy blow. Victory over the Soviet Union in Afghanistan was the victory of a righteous Islam over one of the two superpowers and a sign that God blessed al-Qaeda—or so claim the movement’s apologists. Twin losses in Iraq and Afghanistan to the remaining superpower and its allies would deprive terror apologists of both a sense of historical momentum and a powerful recruiting tool.
It is likely, too, that a perceived American victory in Iraq, however modest, would contribute to a general reconsideration of American power. Before 9/11, many observers in the United States and abroad significantly overestimated America’s true position in the world. Americans particularly tended to exaggerate America’s global influence and popularity. After 9/11, and even more, after the bungled move into Iraq, the floundering failure of the American occupation, and the country’s descent into chaos, world opinion overcorrected. Widely considered a colossus that could not be stopped in 2000, America came to be seen by 2007 as a badly governed, near-bankrupt country in rapid and irreversible decline.
Having overshot in both directions, the world may now move toward a more sustainable and accurate view of American power and its world role. The United States is likely to remain the world’s largest economy and, in both political and military terms, its most important state for some time to come. Rivals and potential rivals all face constraints and obstacles even more daunting. This re-assessment of the American prospect would likely come regardless of developments in Iraq, but should events there continue to move favorably, many will be struck by the resilience of American power.