Is it appropriate to be celebrating victory in Iraq?
Retired General Barry McCaffrey reports:
Imagine if we had left a year ago! I'm not going to go all the way back and say, "Imagine if we'd never gone in." Too late, and too early. Besides several thousand Americans, tens of thousands of Iraqis who are dead would still be living -- probably still under Saddam Hussein. How Saddam would have been a player in the terror landscape, how and whether he might have continued to counterbalance Iran, is a never-to-be-known. And whether the new Iraq will be strong enough to hold, in the high winds of sectarian rivalry and Islamist fanaticism, is not yet known. But given how bad it was, it's as good as it could be. And that is amazing. That is worth celebrating. Petraeus gets the credit (for an artful combination of counterinsurgency and strategic bribery, or "surge and splurge"), and Bush (and whoever advised him) gets the credit for sending in Petraeus.
But don't call it "victory," says the very man most responsible for it. He won't.
"You won't find a single military leader in this theater who will say that," says Petraeus.
"You could be the first, general."
"Yeah, I could, but I won't be."
"At least can't we say 'strategically defeated'?"
"We'll leave that to the academics. [U.S. Ambassador Ryan] Crocker and I explicitly, from day one, together, said that we have got to be coldly realistic and not let our enthusiasms creep into our assessments ... [Success] is still not self-sustaining; there is still a degree of fragility to it, and it could be reversed."
As the general's counterinsurgency guidance puts it, under the rubric "Manage Expectations": "Avoid premature declarations of success." [...] Petraeus acknowledged that this policy of modesty in the face of success is very much informed by our premature victory ejaculations of previous years (before he took charge, of course). "The champagne bottle remains in the back of the refrigerator," he says. "When you've been in Iraq for as long as actually both of us have, coming up on four years, you're a little less prone to get too excited too quickly."
But I think we're justified in at least getting cautiously excited, slowly. And in thinking about incorporating into our worldview (if it's not there already) the notion that the United States does not give up. That's a very useful notion for our survival, security, and morale, even if it's not pure as the driven snow. If you make a horrendous mistake, do you retreat in shame in the depths of the mess you've made, or do you stay, change course, and clean it up? Whatever happens to Iraq in the years to come, consider the difference it has made for American security and morale. Al Qaeda may not be licked yet, but maybe "Vietnam syndrome" finally is.
POSTSCRIPT: Writing this made me realize why AmbivaBlog is the right name for this sucker.
Ambivalence is not just a cop-out, it's an actual position -- wanting to stay true to the mixed bag that life is, and not to succumb to the emotional satisfactions of oversimplification, editing the white out of the black or the black out of the white. It's temperamental Taoism.
It doesn't mean you can't act and make choices, either. The white half looks a little bigger, and by God, it is! And the size of the dot varies. Your actions just have to be accompanied by a certain modesty of affect, something like an existential shrug. Neither triumphalism nor defeatism will appeal.