“Victory Is Not an Option”

Strong essay in the Washington Post over the weekend by William Odom, retired lieutenant general and former NSA chief, laying out why the arguments in favor of prolonging the war are based on illusions.

First, the assumption that the United States could create a liberal, constitutional democracy in Iraq defies just about everything known by professional students of the topic. Of the more than 40 democracies created since World War II, fewer than 10 can be considered truly “constitutional” — meaning that their domestic order is protected by a broadly accepted rule of law and has survived for at least a generation. None is a country with Arabic and Muslim political cultures. None has deep sectarian and ethnic fissures like those in Iraq.

The absurdity of our stated goal in Iraq has been clear from the start: We are at war because we want to create a democracy in a country where, if we held a democratic vote today to determine the form of government, the majority of people would choose not to have a democracy. And our presence has not only not changed that, it has turned popular opinion even further away from our cause.


Second, to expect any Iraqi leader who can hold his country together to be pro-American, or to share American goals, is to abandon common sense.

Likewise, we are trying to create a pro-American democracy in a country where the great majority of people are anti-American. This was true before the invasion, and it’s even more true now, and neither dropping more bombs nor terrorizing more civilians nor locking up another hundred innocent people for every one true insurgent is going to reverse that.

Gen. Odom recites several popular arguments for staying in Iraq, and shoots down the absurdity, the inherent contradiction, of each of them.

1) We must continue the war to prevent the terrible aftermath that will occur if our forces are withdrawn soon.
2) We must continue the war to prevent Iran’s influence from growing in Iraq.
3) We must prevent the emergence of a new haven for al-Qaeda in Iraq.

But that terrible aftermath is now already upon us; that new haven for al-Qaeda has already emerged; and as the great majority of Iraqis are in favor of closer ties with Iran, how we’re supposed to create a true democracy and at the same time not see Iran’s influence increasing is a question somebody really ought to come up with an answer to.


4) We must continue to fight in order to “support the troops.”

“Has anybody asked the troops?” writes Gen. Odom, and then shows the fallacy in that one as well: Our military is here to serve the commander-in-chief, not vice versa, and the responsibility — both practically and morally — for the decision whether to continue fighting in Iraq lies with Bush, not with our troops.

(For what it’s worth, I have a cyberpal on the WELL who is an officer serving in Iraq, and while he’s only one troop, he’s the only troop I know personally. Over the years I’ve seen him grow increasingly angry over this war and over the impossible goals and willfully ignorant strategies of the civilian commanders, and I’m comfortably sure that if we decided to bring the troops back home as quickly as possible he wouldn’t regard it as a lack of support. If we want to support our troops, we should give them goals that are not inherently impossible, and the equipment to make those goals physically achievable, or else stop asking them to sacrifice their lives for a hopeless folly.)

More advice from Gen. Odom:

The first and most critical step is to recognize that fighting on now simply prolongs our losses and blocks the way to a new strategy. Getting out of Iraq is the pre-condition for creating new strategic options. Withdrawal will take away the conditions that allow our enemies in the region to enjoy our pain. It will awaken those European states reluctant to collaborate with us in Iraq and the region. …

Fourth, we must redefine our purpose. It must be a stable region, not primarily a democratic Iraq. We must redirect our military operations so they enhance rather than undermine stability. We can write off the war as a “tactical draw” and make “regional stability” our measure of “victory.” That single step would dramatically realign the opposing forces in the region, where most states want stability. Even many in the angry mobs of young Arabs shouting profanities against the United States want predictable order, albeit on better social and economic terms than they now have.

Realigning our diplomacy and military capabilities to achieve order will hugely reduce the numbers of our enemies and gain us new and important allies. This cannot happen, however, until our forces are moving out of Iraq. Why should Iran negotiate to relieve our pain as long as we are increasing its influence in Iraq and beyond?

Really excellent essay, well worth rereading and chewing over.

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