Monday, May 07, 2007

Winning vs Losing in Iraq

Harry Reid has earned the scorn of right wingers and others in claiming that the war in Iraq has been lost. So far as I know, no one is claiming that the US has won this war. But there are many other possibilities besides winning and losing simpliciter.

As you may have gathered by now, I see the analysis of concepts as little different from the analysis of the meanings of words and phrases and I want to turn now to an analysis of the concepts of winning and losing in the context of the Iraq war.

There was a time when winning and losing a war had very clear meanings. The Allies clearly won World Wars I and II in that Germany and in the case of WWII Japan were forced to surrender. In both cases, but especially World War II one could chart whether we were winning or losing by looking at the maps our newspapers carried showing where the front lines were. As the font lines advanced closer and closer to Berlin, the more confident we could be that we were winning. The same could be said for the Allied Island hopping in the Pacific. The closer we got to Japan, the more confidence we could have that we were winning.

There were other measures. In the European theater, the toll on German air force gave us a good measure of the ability of Germany to resist the Allies. The same was true in the Pacific as well. But in the Pacific, a decisive additional measure was the level of destruction meted out to Allied and Japanese Carriers and other major ships.

In the case of the Korean war, we also needed only to look at our morning newspapers to see where the front lines were. There were times when it was clear that UN forces were getting their butts kicked but then their fortunes changed. Ultimately, it became clear that neither side could win the war and a stable truce was established at the 38th parallel.

Iraq, like Vietnam, affords no simple measures of winning and losing. There are, it seems, several different wars going on. There is the sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites. Then there is the hostilities between US military and Shiite militias, which waxes hot and cold. Then there are the attacks by Insurgents on elements of the Iraqi government, including especially attacks on any Sunnis who cooperate with this government, as well as the general population, including especially Shiite civilians. And there there is the very hot war between the Americans and the Insurgents. In this context, it is virtually impossible to gauge success and failure in the case of the American war effort.

The Democrats, having failed to mandate a withdrawal with their first piece of legislation on funding the Iraq War (as well as that in Afghanistan, which few Americans seem to oppose) have moved to the idea of aligning funding with specific benchmarks that could be argued to represent success, if met, and failure, if not met, in the Iraq war. Interestingly, Bush and his Secretary of Defense (War) seem not to be in complete agreement as to the merits of the use of benchmarks in this way. In my morning paper, which I seem unable to access this morning, but also in the LA Times, there are indications that Gates himself wants to see some "progress" in the war in Iraq. It seems that he, like the Democrats, sees use of a timetable for the Iraqis to meet certain guidelines or benchmarks as the correct way of measuring success and failure in this Iraq.
During a recent trip to the Middle East, Gates told the Iraqi government that time was running out and praised Democratic efforts in the U.S. Congress to set a timetable for withdrawal, saying it would help prod the Iraqis. He reiterated that point during a meeting with reporters last week.
Naturally the Bush administration does not like for Gates to stray from the herd, to use a Texas cowboy metaphor and seems to have forced Gates to backtrack a bit.
A spokesman for Gates insisted there was no distance between the Defense secretary's thinking on the timetable for Iraq and views held by the White House or Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq.
So, the question arises as to whether Bush is himself prepared to go along with some sort of timetable for Iraqi compliance with American demands, including the Iraqi army's taking control of the war.
I believe Gates is on a completely different page than President Bush and Gen. Petraeus," said a former senior Defense official who has supported the buildup. "He wants to see some results by summer, and if he doesn't see those results, he seems willing to throw the towel in."
It seems Gates is unwilling to go along with Bush's view that if there is to be some sort of timetable for Iraqi compliance with various benchmarks, the timetable should be flexible. Of course, a flexible timetable is no timetable at all. But the fact is that in a war like this the only way to measure success and failure is to measure how well the Iraqis do in regard to meeting various benchmarks such as taking full control of the war against Insurgents and efforts to stop the sectarian violence.

In my view, Bush is afraid to admit defeat in Iraq, that is, to admit that the Iraqi government is incapable of defending itself against against Insurgents of whatever kinds as well as bringing an end to the sectarian violence. Such an admission would mark his administration as a near total failure. He would much prefer to pass this on to a future, very likely Democratic administration. All that really remains is to see how long Republicans running for Congressional seats and Republicans trying to win the the party's Presidential nomination and then the General Election will go along with Bush. What Republican wants to be the one to withdraw American forces from Iraq? Right now, few prominent Republicans are willing to admit that Bush is wearing no clothes. I suspect that will change by late Fall.

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