The Magazine

Will We Choose to Win in Iraq?

The war is frustrating. That doesn't mean we ought to get out.

Sep 4, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 47 • By WILLIAM J. STUNTZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Thirty-eight years ago, American politics was rocked by another politically controversial war. Then, as now, liberal Democrats competed for the allegiance of an increasingly powerful antiwar left. Then, as now, that constituency flexed its muscles in a key Democratic primary that seemed to turn American politics upside down: In March 1968, Eugene McCarthy almost defeated President Lyndon Johnson in New Hampshire; earlier this month, Ned Lamont triumphed over Senator Joe Lieberman in Connecticut.

And there may be one more parallel. According to Michael Barone, the gold standard in political commentary, many of the voters who pulled the lever for McCarthy were dissatisfied with Johnson's conduct of the Vietnam war not because they believed the war was wrong or wasteful, but because they believed America was losing it. As Barone puts it in Our Country, voters dissatisfied with Vietnam wanted to "win or get out."

In Lamont's speeches, as in the antiwar rants on Daily Kos, the first half of that phrase is missing. The pattern extends beyond the angry left. George F. Will and William F. Buckley Jr. have both written columns basically endorsing the current John F. Kerry view of the Iraq war: that it isn't worth fighting. Across the ideological spectrum, one hears and reads arguments for pulling back or pulling out. Instead of "win or get out," the critics' standard line is simply: Get out.

But do the voters agree? Maybe so. Or maybe they have an attitude similar to the one Barone saw among Vietnam-era voters. A large portion, maybe a large majority, might believe that Americans should fight only wars that are worth winning, that we should do all in our power to win them, and that the Iraq war meets the first standard but fails the second. The real political problem with Iraq may be not that we're fighting an unwinnable or less-than-worthwhile war, but that our forces are at serious risk of avoidable defeat.

Whether or not many voters do think that, there is a strong case to be made that they should. As between the dovish critique of the Bush administration's performance in Iraq and the hawkish one, the hawks have the better argument.

There are three plausible grounds for pulling out of a war. First, the status quo might be both acceptable and stable; something resembling victory might already have been achieved. That is roughly the decision the United States made in Korea after 1951: The North Korean and Chinese invasions of South Korea had been repelled, and the South's government was unlikely to fall if the fighting ended. The Truman and Eisenhower administrations both decided to stop fighting as soon as the Chinese and North Koreans were willing to accept the continued division of the peninsula.

Plainly, this condition doesn't hold in Iraq today. Iraq isn't stable; it's radically unstable. A pullout now risks a regime controlled by radical Shiites like Moktada al-Sadr--another ally for Iran, to add to Baathist Syria and Hezbollah-ruled Lebanon. That isn't near-victory; it's total defeat.

Second, success may be worth too little to justify the effort. A good many opponents of the Vietnam war argued that our side was no better than the Viet Cong, that the fight was between two sets of thugs--and the thugs on the other side had more popular support. The "our side is no better" line pops up a lot these days in connection with Iraq, but it simply isn't true.

Our side in Iraq holds elections. The other side kills people who stand in line to vote. America's military is fighting not to protect one set of thugs from another, but to allow a democratically elected government to establish itself in a society a majority of whose members want it to do so. It's hard to imagine a more morally worthy goal. And that would be true even if our enemies were not uncommonly murderous--which they plainly are. Rarely has a militarily powerful state fought for nobler ends.

Foreign policy realists criticize the Iraq war on a different ground, one that plausibly applied both to Vietnam and to Korea: Victory for our opponents would have only modest strategic consequences. Shortly before Kim Il Sung's army invaded South Korea, Secretary of State Dean Acheson all but invited the attack, declaring South Korea outside America's zone of strategic concern. As for Vietnam, it should suffice to note that America won the Cold War decisively even after North Vietnam conquered the South. Our strategic interests suffered more from the war itself than from Hanoi's triumph.