Defining down the war
Matt Yglesisas on John McCain’s take on the situation in Iraq:
“Any rational observer would say that if the war’s lost, then someone won the war,” according to John McCain, “Al Qaeda will win that war.” This is very insightful if you’re dumb. By the same token, if buying my MacBook was a smart idea for me, I must have been ripping Apple off. Similarly, again, if Japan got rich by exporing goods to the West, the United States and Europe must have gotten poorer during Japan’s great expansion.
In the real world, interactions between human beings are often other than zero sum (see Bob Wright’s book). The Iraq War is, at this point, far beyond matters of “winning” and “losing.” Saddam Hussein certainly lost the war, so does that mean we won? No, it means that both Saddam’s regime and the American people are worse off than we might have otherwise been.
Quite So. Thing is, much of the pain being suffered by all parties right now is a result of overambitious war aims, and indeed, war defining.
I tend to see the conflict with totalitarian Islam as being eerily similar to the Cold War. It will undoubtedly take a long time. And undoubtedly much of the “fighting” will be accomplished via non-military means (i.e., economic development, diplomacy, propaganda, intelligence, etc.). Occasionally military intervention by the West may be called for (as in Afghanistan).
With respect to Iraq, I find myself belonging to the (no doubt dwindling) camp of persons who still believe the impetus for the original action — ending the regime of the mass murderer Saddam Hussein — was both morally justifiable and consistent with long term US geopolitical interests — but that the whole project was mismanaged with a shocking and genuinely tragic degree of incompetence. We should have, in other words, gotten in and gotten out, quickly.
Anyway — getting back to the Cold War analogy — I’ve always thought it very much an overstatement to say that the United States “lost the Vietnam War.” I state this not out of some warped sense of jingoistic American gunghoism. Rather, I state this because it’s simply insufficiently accurate to say the US lost “the war.” The right way to describe what happened to the US is that she suffered a series of bloody, tactical defeats in a single large-scale campaign (The Southeast Asian) in an ultimately successful war (The Cold).
So, I think, needless to say, Senator McCain has gotten his geopolitical sums wrong by forgetting his history lessons. The War itself is winnable, and indeed must be won. But the campaign has now become a deadly albatross, and needs to be disengaged from.