Defining victory.

President Bush has backed himself into a rhetorical corner that will make it difficult for him to extricate the United States from the war in Iraq.  First of all, he has made the mistake of allowing our stake in the war in Iraq to be defined by our enemies.  In his speech to the National Endowment for Democracy on September 6th, the President quoted Osama bin Laden as describing the outcome in Iraq as “either victory or glory, or misery and humiliation” for al-Qaida.  It is clear that the President sees the outcome in the same terms for the United States, and for himself.

The President also has turned over to al-Qaida the choice of the main battleground in what the President characterizes as an epic struggle between good and evil.  By declaring that Iraq is the “central front” in a global war against Islamist terrorism, the President has made another fateful decision, because success on that front depends on his ability to foster a stable government in Iraq that will remain an ally in the war against terrorism.

In the 85-year history of modern Iraq, a “nation” cobbled together from disparate religious and ethnic factions by the British after World War I, all governments of Iraq, without exception, have been overthrown by revolution or other violent means.  Retired Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, a former Director of the National Security Agency appointed by President Ronald Reagan, recently was quoted as saying that “There is no question the insurgents and other anti-American parties will take over the government once we leave. But that will happen no matter how long we stay.”  General Odom is by no means alone in that prediction.

During his campaign in 2000, then-candidate George Bush repeatedly ridiculed the use of the United States military for “nation building.”  Our early missteps and inadequate commitment to nation building in Iraq reflected the ambivalence of the President and his advisers toward the process.  Nevertheless, he now has pegged his success in the war against terrorism on his ability to rebuild Iraq into something resembling a pro-American democracy, an effort unlikely to succeed.

The misery and humiliation that President Bush may feel if it appears that the United States is driven from Iraq by the insurgency is better than the legacy of unnecessarily sending more brave men and women there to die.  The moral success or failure of his leadership in this war likely will be judged, not on his decision to invade Iraq, but on his decision when to leave.  The moral failure of our leadership during the war in Vietnam did not lie in the initial decision to try to defend South Vietnam from aggression by North Vietnam.  It occurred when the war was allowed to continue long after they had decided that we could not or would not do what was necessary to win the war.

President Nixon extricated us from the war in Vietnam by declaring that we had done all we could be expected to do, and ordering our troops home.  President Bush should take comfort from the fact the loss of the war in Vietnam did not lead, as feared, to the ascendancy of world communism, nor did it mean the end of the United States as a global superpower.

There is as little evidence that the war in Iraq is critically important to the global war on Islamist extremism as there was evidence supporting the “domino” theory that drew us so deeply into the war between North and South Vietnam.  Unfortunately, by declaring Iraq to be the central front in the war against terrorism, President Bush has needlessly backed himself into a corner.  It will now be much more difficult for him to extricate us from the war in Iraq.

October 7, 2005

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