US Foreign Policy
Policy Paper

Don’t Declare Victory

in Program

This article was initially published in The American Interest for its March-April 2008 issue.


The 2008 definition of “winning” in Iraq is more about security narrowly construed than political transformation or democracy. We clearly are able to achieve short- to medium-term improvements in the security conditions in the country, but we should have no illusions that we can soon “win” a bigger game, that we will transform Iraq into a stable and democratic country and a model for change in the region, or that by winning in Iraq we will defeat al-Qaeda. Even the discussion of American achievements, if undertaken in quintessentially American terms, may widen the gap between us and those in the region we profess to support. Would-be democrats in the Middle East do not seek a U.S. “win” in Iraq. They are looking for smart survival strategies that can change the political culture of the region over time, and they realize-even if most Americans do not-that talk of “defeating” Islamists or other rivals, as if politics were a soccer match, is counterproductive and even dangerous.

“Winning” is a palatable way to think about end-states in Iraq for Americans raised on sports metaphors. For many months, those tracking the surge have been looking for signs that we’re winning, and pundits and politicians are quick to grab data that suggest a positive trend. Such indicators of success in the specific goal of the surge-to reduce levels of violence across Iraq-are being used to revalidate the core goals of our decision to enter Iraq, and to repackage the terms of the debate for our departure.

If Iraq can sustain the reduction in violence throughout 2008 and in the run-up to their next elections in 2009, it will shore up the Iraqi political class that we helped create in the 2005 elections. The surge has indeed been critical in creating new security capacity in Iraq, and in bolstering the skills and confidence of the Iraqi security sector, but we should be careful to acknowledge the separate and equally important contribution of the Sunni tribal leaders, who made their own strategic choice to fight al-Qaeda. The coincidence or convergence of these two trends is both good news and bad news for politicians in Baghdad. It allows them to work on a new national agenda in more normal conditions, but creates alternative power centers that can delay, if not prevent, the badly needed consolidation of political competence in Iraq’s national institutions.

Sustaining a reduction in violence will also provide some short-term relief to the regimes surrounding Iraq, which have feared U.S. failure and weakness as much as they have resented the misplaced triumphalism and overconfidence that led to the U.S. adventure in the first place. In its most concrete manifestation, “winning” against violent forces in Iraq can help stem the flow of refugees into Syria and Jordan in particular, permit the currently displaced to return home, and reduce some of the pressures the neighbors have felt at home, such as a rise in sectarian consciousness, new demands on their own security and border forces, and harm to tourism, trade and investment in their economies.

For Iran’s complex and multifaceted policy toward Iraq, the success of the surge and the Sunni turnaround is a mixed blessing, since some level of violence seems key to Tehran’s ability to retain influence and sustain support among anti-American constituencies, even as they profess to share our desire for a stable Iraq. The neighbors will also be concerned about a Pyrrhic victory, since the empowerment of local tribal leaders in Iraq to manage security may be deeply threatening to centralized states that have amassed a monopoly of coercive power. Iraqi tribes have strong linkages across borders in Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia, and could create new expectations for enhanced status and responsibility on the part of their relatives in those countries.

Winning the political contest on terms that would be attractive to Americans seems less achievable. Iraq is creating a new political culture, but it is one not yet based on healthy contestational politics. It’s still a winner-take-all affair, and those with the natural demographic advantage-the Shi’a underclass that suffered under Saddam Hussein-do not espouse the core values of Western democracy. A true transformation of Iraqi politics, however, with suave Western-educated leaders espousing liberal values and prevailing over traditional and Islamic-oriented political actors, would also create considerable tension in the region, where the main lesson of America’s Iraq strategy has been to avoid democratization and its pitfalls. Iraq’s neighbors mistrust its unseasoned Shi’a politicians, but they would be even more threatened by ambitious, effective, pro-Western reformers at the helm in Baghdad. We should have no illusions that a true win in Iraq along the lines of the neoconservative rhetoric of 2003 would have that transformative effect. At best, it would provide a psychological boost to a small elite of cosmopolitan Arabs across the region who have little chance of gaining power, given the entrenched culture and the enduring demographics of the region.

Iraq’s new political class may achieve important reform over time, and today’s power struggles among competing Shi’a factions and parties may augur well for more normal political competition in the future, even across sectarian lines. There are small signs that the new procedures and protocols of political life in Baghdad are aiding decision-making and will further foster compromise and consensus on key national issues. But by the time that new political system emerges, in a generation or more, it will surely not be understood as a victory inspired or led by the United States.

This brings us to the issue of memory, and the very different ways in which people in the Middle East and the United States record and interpret history. The very notion that the United States may be attempting to declare a “win” in the Iraq crisis would defy logic in the minds of people in the region. Many Iraqis and other Arab intellectuals and political actors have already begun to internalize the experience of the past five years. They are creating a narrative about the U.S. occupation and the costs to Iraqi society that will not correlate at all with our accounts of the surge.

An American political discussion about victory in Iraq will be seen as driven by U.S. domestic politics and self-interest. Some Arabs will fear that it will be used to justify permanent bases and turn Iraq into a long-term client of Washington, but others will see a different impulse: Declaring victory allows the United States to leave Iraq and let the Iraqis try to fix their political system on their own terms. This will be the more likely scenario if a Democratic president occupies the Oval Office in January 2009. We have tried to make our respect for Iraqi sovereignty a virtue, but it’s also a convenient way to avoid admitting defeat in the transformational aspects of the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy.

The United States also has to bring the Iraq story home, and to focus on some painful challenges related to treatment for returning veterans. That may require re-allocating spending priorities away from overly ambitious construction in Iraq toward life-long facilities for the young soldiers whose lives have been permanently impaired by their service in Iraq. We cannot “win” the Iraq war and still think our society a good one if we betray the needs of those who have sacrificed so much for us.

American political leaders also need to redress the budgetary imbalances both at home and abroad that have been caused by Iraq war spending. A true win for America would be to learn honestly from the mistakes of Iraq, to pursue a more modest and constructive foreign policy of engagement internationally, to treat returning vets with generosity, and to take the necessary steps to restore our national self-respect and our understanding of the best purposes and possibilities of American power.



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