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How Will We Know When We’ve Won?
by J. F. Kelly, Jr. 3/27/08


           The fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq has come and gone amidst continuing uncertainty over the eventual outcome. President George W. Bush marked the occasion by stating that “removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right decision, and this is a fight that America can and must win.” But how will we know when we have won and exactly what is it that we will have won?

            The Administration’s answer undoubtedly would be that America will know we have won when Iraq can function as a stable and free democracy, able to maintain, without the need for a large American military presence, a reasonable level of security and control of terrorist elements that may seek to exploit a U.S. troop departure. If these are the conditions by which victory is defined, it may yet be a long way off. But the 2008 presidential elections may change all of that.

J.F. Kelly, Jr.

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California. [go to Kelly index]

            In spite of the dramatic success of the surge in reducing violence and restoring some sense of normalcy to Iraqis, most of them, according to a recent poll, are still opposed to a U.S. military presence in their country. At the same time, neither do they favor a precipitous withdrawal if that would jeopardize the new-found security the surge has achieved. But a precipitous withdrawal is what they will likely get if either Sen. Hillary Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama wins in November, at least if their campaign promises can be believed.

            Similarly, in the United States, polls show that more than half of Americans feel that the war was not worth the cost in American lives and treasure and they want us out of Iraq sooner rather than later. But the Administration has steadfastly refused to commit to any sort of timetable. Again, the elections may make the Administration’s wishes and plans moot.

            A reality of U.S. politics and foreign policy is that an administration cannot make a long range military commitment that is binding on succeeding administrations. That’s one reason why the remaining eight months or so of the Bush Administration are so critical to the outcome in Iraq. Decisions and strategies implemented, continued or discontinued now must take into account the fact that a new commander-in-chief will take over in January. With most Americans tired of this war and increasingly preoccupied by economic concerns, they may well turn to Democrats for a different approach. It would indeed be different. Both Democratic candidates are committed to prompt troop withdrawal and their economic remedies would clearly involve raising taxes and increasing government spending on everything except defense.

President Bush was correct in saying that removing Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do. But he and his advisors, however, were wrong and naïve in thinking that American nation-building could create a stable island of democracy in a sea of Arab turmoil, religious hatred and tribal rivalries in a few years or perhaps ever. Americans overwhelmingly supported overthrowing Hussein but they never committed to a five years plus occupation to build a nation to our liking. The initial objective, again, was to kill the alligators, not drain the swamp.

            And despite optimistic post-surge reports, the end is by no means in sight nor is it yet even clearly definable. The principal lesson to be learned here is that the United States, with a volunteer military depending heavily on reserve and National Guard augmentation, cannot be committed to lengthy, open-ended expeditionary ground campaigns without clearly-defined, realistically achievable objectives that define success and victory. Unless we greatly increase the size of our conventional forces, we must carefully pick our battles to optimize our strengths, emphasizing air and sea-based forces and our superior missile technology.

            How will American voters react to these uncertainties in November? They are clearly tired of the war and eager for some resolution. Hopefully, they will be skeptical of the quick and simple solutions offered by both Democratic candidates. A precipitous pullout is not a solution at all. Rather it would initiate a new set of crises which we may not be able to walk away from. This is reason enough to be greatly concerned at the prospect of a Clinton or Obama presidency. It’s also reason enough for Sen. McCain to carefully elaborate on his proposed approach to defining and recognizing victory in a reasonable time frame. “As long as it takes” is no longer an acceptable answer to most Americans. CRO

copyright 2008 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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