All right, let's skip all the introductory remarks and get to the point. Is victory still possible in Iraq? Yes, though the Bush administration keeps doing its level best to kick that prize away from our troops.
We can tally up the mistakes later (I'll mention two of the worst ones at the end) but the first step to winning in Iraq is to define victory -- and not to define it in such a way, as the Bush administration has done, that leaves us hostages to the Iraqi government. That is a strategic error of the first magnitude.
Even after the president's recent address, announcing that America's patience with the Iraqi government is not limitless, and promising a -- by my lights, not very dramatic -- surge of troops, not enough has changed. The Bush administration's rhetoric of why we fight has shifted from the politically cynical -- and deeply stupid and insensate -- mantra of "stay the course (because you can't trust the cut-'n'-run Democrats)," which the American people rightly recognized as no course at all, to an equally pitiful emphasis that American defeat in Iraq would be a disaster.
No one ever won a war by fighting for "not defeat." You win a war by smashing up the enemy, by so overwhelming him but that he has no choice but to surrender or die. Instead we have "stayed the course" (where is the urgency in that?) and we have whined that losing would be a bad thing.
Yes, losing would be a bad thing -- and the Bush administration should know, given that it has managed to lose both houses of Congress, alienate its own supporters, and convince the American people by a whopping majority that we cannot "win" in Iraq. Well done, Mr. President!
A PRESIDENT WITH SO LITTLE understanding of his own electorate can hardly, in fairness, be held to account for failing to understand the political realities in a country far away and of which he knows little -- though this is scant consolation for those of us who not only think the war was the right and necessary thing to do but who share Mark Steyn's conviction that "if Iraq's lost, the Dems and the media will have a whole new quagmire template for the next 40 years."
But whatever the failures of the administration, it is always a bad idea to bet against the American military.
Indeed, on the military front, things are not so dire as you might think.
First, while the American military -- to avoid echoes of Vietnam -- disdains kill ratios and body counts, it appears that Iraq is indeed a meat-grinder -- for the insurgents. If the Islamists have made this their main battlefront, they're paying a heavy price to maintain it.
Second, while the Bush administration's proposed "surge" of troops should have occurred in 2003 -- or at the very least by 2006, and should have been more than double the size of what Bush has promised -- it will, if swiftly and fully enacted, make the general pacification of Iraq by the end of the year an achievable goal. But the plan must be enacted now, and with vigor. Delays and half-measures never won fair victory. As usual, General George S. Patton had it right: "A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week."
But more fundamental than this, if we are to win in Iraq we need to start with the recognition that we have already won.
Before the war, we faced a hostile regime commanding the entire infrastructure of a fascist state. Now we face terrorists with roadside bombs. That's a big reduction in enemy capabilities.
Toppling Saddam Hussein was a militarily achievable goal that our armed forces won splendidly -- game, set, and match. We eliminated an overt enemy of the United States who had nurtured a Weapons of Mass Destruction program, who maintained a large army that fired on our planes patrolling the no-fly zones every day, and whose regime trained and harbored anti-American terrorists. And in ousting Saddam Hussein, we convinced Moammar Gaddafi to surrender his weapons of mass destruction program, and chided Pakistan into shutting down A.Q. Khan, who was the main funnel of WMD technology to rogue states. That's no small accomplishment.
For an encore, we even guaranteed the security of three honestly conducted national elections in Iraq. That, too, was a militarily achievable goal, which we accomplished in 2005.
The problem is, once Iraq had a government, the Bush administration made a refrain of "We'll be in Iraq until the job is complete, at the request of a sovereign government elected by the people." And we'll stay "to get the job done so long as the government wants us there." But since when has it been a wise policy to subordinate America's national interests to those of a foreign government, let alone an Iraqi government that has taken to vetoing or protesting American military policy?
THE NUB OF THE ISSUE is that transferring political power to the Iraqi "government elected by the people" means transferring military power at a rate not far behind; otherwise, our troops are not only hostages to a government we didn't elect, but we will increasingly find ourselves at odds with our putative ally.
Iraq can be democratic -- it was democratic before, under the British imperium -- but it will be an Iraqi democracy; that is, a democracy with secret police and a short way with dissenters. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has political goals far different from our own. He doesn't care a whit about the rights of Sunnis; he cares for ensuring and perpetuating the newfound dominance of the Iraqi Shiites. That's not bad news for us, but it is bad news for al-Qaeda terrorists (and for Saddamites too). They know what congressional Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee don't: al-Qaeda is Sunni.
And while there is no inherent military reason why our troops cannot train the Iraqi army to defeat the insurgents, we need to bear in mind what a "pacified" Iraq will look like.
We need to accept that Iraq will never be a country in our own image. Assassination, whether through roadside bombs, decapitation (by hanging or knife), a random spray of bullets, militia street battles, or government hit-men, is a traditional form of Middle Eastern greeting that we are not going to eliminate. All we should care about is leaving behind a reasonably pro-Western government. And if the standard of such government in the region is the likes of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon, Iraq will be as pro-Western as any.
And what about the argument that Shiite Iraq will become a tool of Shiite Iran? Not much to fear there. Neighboring states don't often willingly accept -- or welcome -- an Anschluss. Iranian influence in Iraq is in direct proportion to our presence there. We want peace and harmony between Sunnis and Shiites, but because Prime Minister al-Maliki would rather the Sunnis be reduced to a state of near dhimmitude, he has no interest in repressing Shiite militias backed by Iran. Once we leave, however, the prime minister will have every interest in protecting his own power and Iraqi sovereignty against his Iranian neighbor, and suddenly it will be less important that Iran is Shiite than that Iran is Persian and Iraq is Arab.
ALL OF WHICH IS TO SAY that even though the "surge" is smaller and later than it has any right to be, it should provide the necessary force improvements to expedite the transfer of military responsibility from our shoulders to the shoulders of the Iraqis in a politically acceptable way. The surge needs to be swift and dramatic -- let us pray that it is. And let us pray that the Bush administration drops its cowardly cover-your-ass rhetoric about a "long war." This shouldn't be a long war for us. Our little brown brothers should be turned loose to take the scimitar to their enemies -- without American referees -- as soon as politically possible, which should be early 2008.
The result will be an Iraq at least as pro-Western as some of our other semi-allies in the region -- and that, for any realistic statesman, is certainly good enough.
And this is where we come to the two worst errors the Bush administration has made in Iraq -- and I say this not as a Monday morning quarterback, but as someone who held this view before the war ever started. We should never have pledged to uphold a unified Iraq. We should instead have created an independent Kurdistan, an independent Shiite Mesopotamia, and an independent (and largely Sunni) rump state of Iraq. And while Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks were absolutely right to invade Iraq with a light force -- for speed and surprise -- we should have reinforced our initial victory with a doubling of our troop strength to stem the inevitable initial chaos. If we had done these things, if we had simply abided by two of the cardinal lessons of military history, "divide and conquer" and "reinforce success," our job would be done, most of our troops would be home, and President Bush would not have received his electoral thumping. But you know the old saw about those who don't read history....