Posted by Brad @ 1:55 pm on April 27th 2007

What Are We Losing or Trying to Win in Iraq?

It’s a fundamental question, and one that I don’t think a lot of people have a good answer for. What exactly is the goal of our surge? What are we holding out for? What are we trying to prevent, and more to the point, how do we actually prevent it, rather than just sitting on it?

Biden last night made a good point that the War in Iraq, as talked about 99% of the time, is an exercise of completely talking over the issue. It’s a false choice, that we’re going to “win” or “lose” and that our options are to either stay (presumably indefinitely; I guess the notion is “until Iraq is a stable functioning democracy aligned with US interests that can take charge of its own security”, but I’m coming to think more and more that even that conceptualization is all in how you define the goalposts, and is becoming a little like the goalposts of the “war on terror”, in that when you strip back the rhetoric, there really are none, or at least none in any meaningful sense of it), or to leave right now and throw Iraq entirely under the bus (absolutely none of the Democratic plans save maybe Mike Gravel’s offers this alternative–almost all are measured, pretty reasonable views of keeping a lid on things as best we can without permanently stationing half our military there).

This is sort of a continuation of Adam’s post below, but the terms of the debate, and even the reality (or unreality) of our goals in Iraq belie a certain vapidity at this point that I think is a lot more important than we give credit to. There are a fair few people who have no idea how a continuation of present policy might render a positive solution (“win”) in Iraq, or even have any real notion of what a positive solution would entail, or even look like, and yet who support it anyway just because of the sense that “we owe it to them” or “it’s too important to not do”. I guess the notion is that if we just hang around long enough, maybe something will spontaneously generate under our noses. We don’t even know what that thing might be, but maybe it’ll be good, and the only way that might possibly happen is if we stay in a holding pattern until it happens (that corollary, of course, is when do we decide that it isn’t going to happen, with no timetables or yardsticks or units of measure or even, well, goals, beyond faint, undefined “hopes”)? If you can’t define success, you can’t really define failure either. And so you just sit around, hoping for one or the other to define itself for you, which of course it never well, and try desperately to herd the rhetorical cats into this or that paradigm so you can win or lose the day’s news cycle, and repeat next week. Such has been our Iraq policy since about six months after the military intervention there.

The more I think about this, the more I have no idea what pro-war advocates or the present military and political leadership of America’s role in Iraq are even proposing we wait for, or what THEY think they’re waiting for. What most recently spurred this line of thinking, in addition to last night’s debates, is this meandering but sharply honest opine from Josh Marshall. For the last few years, whenever I hear almost anybody talk about Iraq, it all coalesces into this vague rhetorical space in my head that seems more and more meaningless the longer it goes on, while the reality on the ground seems to be almost exactly the same now as it was two years ago. We can’t win OR lose Iraq, at this point, because we don’t have any objectives or measurements whatsoever. When you don’t even have a goal, how can you succeed, or fail?

Maybe it would be helpful if every candidate or even advocate, for or against (thought for or against what, I have no idea), were required to answer these three questions (there are surely better ways to phrase it and more questions to ask, but off the top of my head):

1. What, specifically, would success in Iraq look like? What positive outcome would allow us the luxury of withdrawing?
2. What, specifically, would failure in Iraq look like? What negative outcome would finally require us to declare our presence there as no longer being meaningfully helpful, or being more hurtful than it is helpful?
3. What responsibility does America have, if any, to setting conditions for its presence in Iraq, and what might those conditions be?


  1. Defining success is playing into the enemy’s hands, man. We’ll know it when we call it ‘success’.

    Comment by Adam — 4/27/2007 @ 2:40 pm

  2. I’d define it in terms of Kurds and open supporters of secular and democratic rule being able to live in safety.

    Comment by Rojas — 4/27/2007 @ 3:16 pm

  3. Well, the Kurd thing might be achievable, as that was pretty much what they had under the old ‘no-fly zone’ arrangement when they had self-governance. As for the rest, I am not sure that identifying those people and assessing their situation will be very easy and, in any case, it’s hardly a necessary result of even a functioning democracy; I think that it might be an impossibly tall order, unless you accept a situation where everyone is too scared to be an ‘open supporter of secular and democratic rule’ (in which case, Saddam arguably achieved the same result)*.

    *I know that’s not what you mean, but it seems to me that ‘open supporters…’ being able to live in safety just presupposes general safety for all. That looks to be a long way off.

    Comment by Adam — 4/27/2007 @ 3:33 pm

  4. I agree with Adam. I’m also not sure how you quantify “supporters of secular and democratic rule being able to live in safety”, which is kind of what needs to be done at this point. Just leaving that as an ethereal sort of goal is sort of like saying “we’ll relinquish all these emergency powers just as soon as everybody is safe from Terror,” which is kind of my point.

    I fear, though, that yours is a common yardstick for what supporters (including current policy makers) define as “conditions for success”, which is to say “no conditions really at all”, or the condition of “when everything is good” which is to say, “I have no idea when”. And if, of course, you have to attempt to quantify it (which you do), you then have to decide what’s an appropriate level of NON safety, unless you’re shooting for 100%, which is surely not even remotely possible. There’s going to be SOME sectarian and authoritarian violence in Iraq, I think it’s safe to say. How much is too much, and can we EVER reach the point where our involvement leads to a condition where there is not “too much”–if the answer to that is “no”, of course, as some might maintain is already the case and will be pretty much for eternity barring some kind of ill-defined miracle, we need a first order reevaluation of the fundamental premises of our continued involvement. I’m not saying, by the way, that we need 100% to meet the sort of goals you propose or muck the whole thing. But if we can’t even remotely justify our presence as fostering any kind of achievement of even the mushiest of objectives, what are we doing there? And, what if there’s a trade-off between short term “stability”, such as it is, with long term solvency? We COULD, of course, keep Iraq more or less as it is (which is pretty far from “good”) for as long as we’re able to maintain the political capital and resources to continue and occupy it; I’m not sure, in the long run, that’s in anybody’s interest, not that we’d have the stomach to tough it out for much longer anyway (a not-insignificant point). But, that’s essentially the situation we’re finding ourselves in. Stay forever to keep a lid on things (and hope that somehow a solution spontaneously generates itself, and whatever the liklihood you’d put on that, it surely isn’t very good), or start looking for the best way to go about doing what will inevitably have to be done sooner or later anyway. In that sense it’s not about winning or losing at all, but determing what’s an acceptable controlled failure, given that we can’t even decide what success means at all, or how to achieve it, or if it’s even achievable.

    It’s staring to remind me of the impending entitlement crisis in America. “T’would be great if medicare, medicaid, and social security were all solvent and we met all our self-proclaimed responsibilities. That’s not happening now, we have no idea how to make it happen, and it might not even be possible to make it happen, but surely if we wish hard enough and sit on it, a solution will pop up, somehow.” The response; “but it’s NOT solvent now, and we’re not doing anything to make it more unsolvent. We’re just refusing to change the dynamic entirely.” To which “Yeah, well it’s not going to be solvent by abandoning it”. Which is a response, yes, but it rather misses the point by keeping everything in this false, ridiculous paradigm that ties us down without accomplishing anything.

    Adam, I think, has it right in his second sentence of the first post.

    Anyway, this is all rambling and abstract, even for me. I can’t even tell if I’m making sense myself at this point.

    Comment by Brad — 4/27/2007 @ 3:52 pm

  5. I think there’s something a bit shortsided about expecting to make a decision of this sort in a binary fashion, where “if x<100 causalties a month then troops=leave.”

    Think about it in relative terms. Will withdrawing bring us closer to the goal of keeping democratic and Kurdish elements safe in Iraq, or move us further from it? When you convince me that it will make them safer, you’ll have me on board.

    If your standard for success is that a perfect standard of safety must be met permanently, well, then, you’re right, that goal can’t be achieved. But you’re guilty of the same reductio ad absurdum that you accuse the war’s proponents of.

    I’m of the “we broke it, we bought it” school. As long as our presence makes the people who’ve stuck their necks out for us safer, we are obligated to stay. If a settlement can be reached that would make them safer in the long term than they are now, then that could be a condition under which we withdraw.

    Comment by Rojas — 4/27/2007 @ 9:18 pm

  6. I specifically made the point that a perfect standard of safety should NOT be our yardstick. That’s exactly my point. The problem is, short of that, how do you judge ” when Kurds and open supporters of secular and democratic rule being able to live in safety.” And, if you accept that sheer perfection can NOT be the measure of success, you then need to decide how much imperfection is acceptable. That’s not an unreasonable demand or bean counting at all, it’s the most basic requirement of decision making on every level, period. It’s nice to say “we’ll leave when Iraq is safe for democracy,” but saying that without having any sort of way to judge when that point is reached, or even an IDEA for achieving it (nevermind executing said idea), renders the whole thing, well, indefinite, wishy washy, and almost DESTINED to fail…by definition, understand.

    Proponents of the war, at this point, have essentially abandoned any notion of metrics whatsoever–in fact get quite angry at the mere suggestion of fixing any kind of qualifiers or conditions for our continued occupation. The whole notion of ANY kind of quantification (or even qualification) of our involvement is, to the pro-war (certainly administration) sensibility, simply off limits, taboo, something we shouldn’t even bring up. From a Libertarian perspective, when you refuse to condition military or government involvement and instead attach it to some kind of murky, indefinite, probably unattainable (certainly unattainable without any quantification) outcome, what you get is murky, indefinite governance which attains nothing, which is indeed more or less what we’re seeing with our involvement in Iraq right now. See the point?

    That’s to say NOTHING of the causal side effects that safety-net-without-condition brings, which you know full well and have argued for eloquently in virtually ever other arena. If part of that murky yardstick for success entails weening the Iraqi nation off the American teet, you need some sort of conditionality simply as a matter of pragmatism. At least if having a permanent client state is considered an unacceptable outcome (and believe me, it is, and it’s also one we don’t have the political will to follow through on whether it would be “good” for Iraq or not).

    The bottom line is in ANY endeavor, involvement without goals is meaningless. Read that Josh Marshall link for an even more negative take on it. This thesis is we’re just sitting there in the middle of the desert executing day to day operations with absolutely no long term strategy to them simply because, in a very real sense, we have no idea why we’re there, and haven’t essentially since the very beginnings of our strategy didn’t pan out. I don’t think that’s a criticism without merit. But there’s a more fundamental point here, beyond any question of motives. That question is “Okay, if we’re talking about winning and losing and how important all of it is, WHAT DOES WINNING OR LOSING MEAN / LOOK LIKE?” If you can’t answer that in any meaningful or practical sense, you get an awful big, futile mess. It’s like running a race with an invisible, purely hypothetical finish line that nobody knows where it is or even if it is, but you are required to run until you reach it (though how you know when you’ve reached it, nobody knows).

    Practically speaking, you’ll run yourself to death, and still never cross it.

    Comment by Brad — 4/27/2007 @ 10:52 pm

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