The Magazine

How We'll Know When We've Won

A definition of success in Iraq.

May 5, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 32 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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The president's nomination of generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno to take command of U.S. Central Command and Multinational Force-Iraq, respectively, was obviously the right decision. By experience and temperament and demonstrated success, both men are perfectly suited to these jobs. Given the political climate in Washington, however, their nominations are likely to be attacked with the same tired arguments war critics used to try to drown out reports of progress in Iraq during the recent Petraeus-Crocker hearings. So before the shouting begins again, let us consider in detail one of the most important of these arguments: that no one has offered any clear definition of success in Iraq.

Virtually everyone who wants to win this war agrees: Success will have been achieved when Iraq is a stable, representative state that controls its own territory, is oriented toward the West, and is an ally in the struggle against militant Islamism, whether Sunni or Shia. This has been said over and over. Why won't war critics hear it? Is it because they reject the notion that such success is achievable and therefore see the definition as dishonest or delusional? Is it because George Bush has used versions of it and thus discredited it in the eyes of those who hate him? Or is it because it does not offer easily verifiable benchmarks to tell us whether or not we are succeeding? There could be other reasons--perhaps critics fear that even thinking about success or failure in Iraq will weaken their demand for an immediate "end to the war." Whatever the explanation for this tiresome deafness, here is one more attempt to flesh out what success in Iraq means and how we can evaluate progress toward it.


A stable state. An unstable Iraq is a recipe for continued violence throughout the Middle East. Iraq's internal conflicts could spread to its neighbors or lure them into meddling in its struggles. An unstable Iraq would continue to generate large refugee flows, destabilizing vulnerable nearby states. An unstable Iraq would enormously complicate efforts by the United States or any other state to combat terrorists on Iraqi soil. An unstable Iraq would invite the intervention of opportunist neighbors. The Middle East being an area of vital importance to the United States and its allies, all these developments would harm America's interests.

A representative state. Some war critics (and even some supporters) argue that the goal of "democratizing" Iraq is overoptimistic, even hopeless. So what are the alternatives? Either Iraq can be ruled by a strongman, as it was in the past, or it can be partitioned into several more homogeneous territories, each ruled according to its own desires. Before settling for either of these, we should note that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis continue to manifest their desire for representative government, as evidenced by the 8 million who voted in the last elections, the 90 percent of Sunni Arab Iraqis who tell pollsters they will vote in the upcoming provincial elections, and the sense on the streets that anyone who tries to eliminate representative government will do so at his peril. Beyond that, we must note that neither of the two suggested alternatives is compatible with stability. Nevertheless, let us examine them.

A strongman. Iraq is a multiethnic, multisectarian state just emerging from a sectarian civil war. How could a strongman rule it other than by oppression and violence? Any strongman would have to come from one or another of the ethno-sectarian groups, and he would almost certainly repress the others. Although he might, in time, establish a secure authoritarian regime, the history of such regimes suggests that Iraq would remain violent and unstable for years, perhaps decades, before all opposition was crushed. This option would not sit well with American consciences.