WILL ANY OF the Democratic candidates be able to summon the courage to concede an American victory in Iraq?
No one, of course, can know the ultimate outcome of this long war. But the vaunted "facts on the ground" now at least admit a trend leading to what might reasonably be called victory: a suppression of the insurgency; a steep reduction in the level of domestic, sectarian violence; the existence of a constitutional government not unfriendly to America; a gradual reduction of American force presence with diminishing American casualties; and the assurance for a period of a continued base of operations from which to handle other possible contingencies in the region.
But if this outcome "on the ground" can be called victory--and why should it not be?--there is a huge potential problem looming in our ability to acknowledge it. Generic opinion polls for the presidential election all indicate a much better than even chance that a Democrat will be elected president next year. All of the Democrats now have been running on a platform that, if it does not recognize defeat, certainly does not envisage victory. And moving beyond the candidates, a large part of the Democratic base is heavily invested in defeat, which is seen as condign punishment for a despised president.
Imagine then the dilemma facing a Democratic president with a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. It might be too much to think that steps would be taken to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, although a lack of firm policies and rigor in the endgame could have that effect. More plausibly, if victory is near, could the new president proclaim it and cement its benefits for America's future strategic role? Could the new president suspend his or her disbelief and accord the full measure of praise to a general who had saved the day? Could that president give full honor to the American troops, not just for their service--that's always easy--but for their achievement in winning. Could that president show up on an Army bases and declare, in full-throated pride, well-done and mission accomplished?
Historians can cite many instances of nations that have been pulled apart by the difficulty of dealing with defeat in war. Will America be the rare case of a nation that is unable to cope with a victory?
The nation needs very much a way out of this potential dilemma, and both parties must play a role. Democratic leaders need to be given enough space, if any of them will take it, to stand down without facing undue recrimination. And the Democrats need not admit too much. No Democratic candidate could or would ever say that the Iraq War was wisely entered upon, or that its costs were not way too high. All Democrats can claim that for years their criticisms were correct: that there was no winning strategy, that the means employed never matched the ends that were sought, that until just yesterday the situation looked more bleak than it did on the days following the fall of Baghdad in 2003. As legislators, not executives, it was never the Democrats' role to assume full responsibility for the conduct of the war. It was their prerogative, even their duty, to point up many of the flaws and faults of the policy.
All this in the way of criticism--and much more--is fully the "right" of any Democrat. But a Democratic president must be able to step forward from this line and separate himself (or herself) from the destructive passion that would prefer to see the nation lose rather than President Bush win. A larger Democratic figure, in stature, would be able to put the criticisms behind and, beginning from the situation where we are, be prepared to "move on" and assure the nation that it could reap all the benefits of the sacrifices that many have made.
There should be, after all, much to assuage angry Democrats. Although they have not yet gotten their prized plum, the presidency, they have already seen Republicans pay a significant price for the Iraq war. However President Bush may be judged by history (and fortunately for the Democrats, most historians are liberals), he is today sunk in historically low opinion ratings and likely to leave office an unpopular figure. The Democrats, largely because of the war, regained the majority in Congress in 2006. The political "realignment" of which many Republican spoke in 2004 now appears little more than an old dream. The Paul Krugmans, E. J. Dionnes, and Harold Meyersons of the world have all taken their pound of flesh. Is this not enough?
America is regularly referred to as a superpower. But the truth is that this nation's record in military engagements since World War II is less than stellar. Blame it on the statesmen, or the military, or the public, it does not really matter. It is the end result that counts. America fought to a standoff in Korea and suffered a defeat in Vietnam before the military successes of the first Gulf War and (initially) in Afghanistan. Other uses of force have also produced a mixed record: positive outcomes in Grenada, Panama, and Kosovo, failures in Lebanon, Iran, and Somalia. To be a true super power, it is important to win wars. It is especially important not to demand defeat when victory might be possible.
James W. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia and coauthor, most recently, of Red over Blue: The 2004 Elections and American Politics.