Redefining ‘victory’

What exactly are we trying to do in Iraq? What does the “victory” President Bush is constantly extolling really mean? Does it mean just crushing violent dissent and bringing Western-style democracy to a nation and region where dictatorial rule, often theocratic, has been the norm for 2,000 years?

Does it mean stabilizing the political and military situation just enough to permit the withdrawal of U.S. troops, crossing one’s fingers that the warring factions of the same basic religion can live in harmony without a new strongman emerging or a civil war erupting?

Does it mean staying around long enough to crush the last vestiges of terrorist resistance? That might take decades.

It is difficult to dignify these thugs as insurgents, implying they are legitimately interested in expelling an evil force. Insurgents so motivated don’t callously and randomly kill their own women and children. Why, if they are true insurgents, do they go on killing and maiming when the easiest way of ridding themselves of the hated Yankee intruders would be to let things calm down? Removing the explosive belts from those they convince to become martyrs with the promise they will be heroes and live forever in paradise would be more productive, wouldn’t it?

Well, not when the daily toll of death and destruction has begun to have the desired effect its architects always believed it would. More and more Americans have begun to question the entire affair. Debate in Congress has become loud and nasty, and a president who just over a year ago won an impressive re-election bid finds himself besieged, his popularity waning and his political party facing eroding influence going into next year’s midterm elections. The president now must spend much of his time encouraging the home folks to stay the course.

The “victory” Bush seems to be seeking is outside the dictionary definition of achieving “final and complete supremacy or superiority in a battle or war.” That sort of victory has been elusive since World War II. It is doubtful that it is achievable now given the culture of Iraq and indeed the entire region. Besides, Americans _ who have become more and more live-and-let-live even as the globe has shrunk _ simply won’t support the amount of time and manpower needed to accomplish that. So unless the president and his advisers have lost any sense of reality, his “victory” doesn’t mean exactly that.

What it seems to mean now is stabilization, with a decent interval _ shades of Vietnam _ for troops to be withdrawn and the Iraqi police and military forces and civilian government to become strong enough to handle the situation for a while. What happens after that is anyone’s guess, but the likelihood of another Saddam Hussein, whether a Muslim cleric or a new military figure, emerging from the rubble isn’t all that remote.

The president is now seeking an increase of more than $3 billion to quicken the pace of readiness of Iraqi security forces, with the hope of withdrawing some of the invasion troops next year. That, of course, would be aimed at calming the home front in advance of the November congressional elections. If there is a bright spot in the current polls for Bush and Republicans, it is that the Democrats don’t fare much better in public confidence to put things right and that a large number of voters believe the increasingly rancorous debate is harmful to the welfare of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

Of course, it may be. Certainly, as has been noted, the tenor of the controversy probably is encouraging to the al Qaeda crazies who are responsible for most of the horror. But that is the American way and changing it has about the same chance of success as turning Iraq into a bulwark of democracy. The president and his advisers need to understand that and to encourage constructive civil discourse while moving as quickly as possible to his version of “victory.” Those who oppose him need not do it so vociferously even if devouring our own has become a way of life in the capital.

Why we are in Iraq is immaterial at this juncture. Cutting and running prematurely is not the solution. Victory in this case may be just a small bite that hopefully is worth the lives it took to get there.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)