Winning Wars: Winer vs. Clausewitz
We’ve done the “Have we won in Iraq?” thing a couple of times recently, without ever really answering the question. The problem is that there’s no clear definion of “victory” given the vagueness of our objectives.
Weblog pioneer Dave Winer, though, thinks it blindingly obvious: “We won in Iraq, a long time ago.”
Remember when our troops marched into Baghdad, took the place over, drove Saddam into a hole and arrested or killed the government. Then we disbanded their army.
When you go to war that’s what victory looks like.
Winning in war or sport is not vague or ill-defined. When the clock runs out in football the team that’s ahead wins. When two runners are in a race the first to cross the finish line wins. When you fight a war, when you take the other guys’ capital and disband their government and army, that’s winning.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Wars, as Clausewitz taught us, are politics by other means. War, he said, “has its own language but not its own logic.” Had our political objective in Iraq stopped at regime change, then, absolutely, we would have won the instant we captured Saddam. Game over.
Alas, our objectives were much more nebulous than that. In a speech on February 26, 2003, President Bush outlined his goals in lofty fashion. A follow-on document, National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, outlined them in, well, outline fashion in November 2005.
Let’s go through them. My comments are in red, everything else is original.
VICTORY IN IRAQ DEFINED
As the central front in the global war on terror, success in Iraq is an essential element in the long war against the ideology that breeds international terrorism. Unlike past wars, however, victory in Iraq will not come in the form of an enemy’s surrender, or be signaled by a single particular event — there will be no Battleship Missouri, no Appomattox. The ultimate victory will be achieved in stages, and we expect:
- In the short term:
- An Iraq that is making steady progress in fighting terrorists and neutralizing the insurgency, meeting political milestones; building democratic institutions; standing up robust security forces to gather intelligence, destroy terrorist networks, and maintain security; and tackling key economic reforms to lay the foundation for a sound economy.
It’s reasonable to say that this is happening to the degree we could reasonably have expected, if perhaps not at the level we’d hoped.
- In the medium term:
- An Iraq that is in the lead defeating terrorists and insurgents and providing its own security, with a constitutional, elected government in place, providing an inspiring example to reformers in the region, and well on its way to achieving its economic potential.
The first part of this is very much happening. But, surely, the neighbors aren’t yet inspired. Economic potential? Not so much.
- In the longer term:
- An Iraq that has defeated the terrorists and neutralized the insurgency.
Quite successful here, although violence could flare back up.
- An Iraq that is peaceful, united, stable, democratic, and secure, where Iraqis have the institutions and resources they need to govern themselves justly and provide security for their country.
- An Iraq that is a partner in the global war on terror and the fight against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, integrated into the international community, an engine for regional economic growth, and proving the fruits of democratic governance to the region
Certainly not. Then again, these were the “longer term” goals.
To his credit, the president made it clear from the get-go that there would be no immediate, satisfying victory. That “Battleship Missouri” line made frequent appearances in his speeches. Regardless, he set incredibly ambitious goals that we haven’t achieved. Beyond even the example to others rhetoric, we’re short even of the more mundane “An Iraq that is peaceful, united, stable, democratic, and secure, where Iraqis have the institutions and resources they need to govern themselves justly and provide security for their country.” To be sure, most of these aren’t military goals.
There is no such thing as winning an occupation. You either continue to occupy or withdraw. It’s semantic nonsense to apply the verb “win” to the noun “occupation.”
There’s a lot of truth to that. But occupation can be a transitional step to achieving one’s political goals. The postwar occupations of Germany and Japan did just that. Indeed, they achieved precisely the kinds of lofty, seemingly pie-in-the-sky goals we’ve thus far failed to reach in Iraq.
To be sure, Iraq isn’t Germany or Japan. Iraq wasn’t a homogeneous, modern nation state but a volatile collection of sectarian groupings forced together under a nearly arbitrary colonial map and held together by ruthless strongmen. Still, a large part of our problem — aside from setting the bar too high — was our unwillingness to be seen as an Army of Occupation. Pretending that an illegitimate, sovereign-in-name-only government was really running things made things much worse than they had to be.
Regardless, we’re where we are. And it’s not “victory”
The question at this point is whether we continue trying to achieve the political objectives set forth at the outset and reiterated repeatedly since then or declare the war lost and cut our losses.