Victory is more than a word
By: Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift AP
By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON — It’s tempting to declare victory in Iraq now that Al-Qaeda is on the run in Anbar province, the area in Iraq where the terrorist group is most active. The problem is that anytime you declare victory over an enemy that has not surrendered, you should prepare to be surprised. The Bush administration is cool to the idea, which was proposed for discussion by a single general, on the grounds that absent Al-Qaeda, Iraq would devolve into a civil war and along with it any rationale for keeping U.S. troops in the country. Also, the president obviously remembers the banner on an the aircraft carrier that welcomed him after coalition forces took Baghdad in 2003: “Mission accomplished.”
A cautionary history tale is in order. General William Westmoreland told Congress in 1968 that we had “turned the corner” in Vietnam. Then the Tet offensive occurred, which turned the corner for sure, but not in the way Westmoreland hoped. The Tet offensive, coming right after the American people had been told their side was winning, broke the will of the public to support the war and destroyed Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. The irony is that the Viet Cong suffered major losses and never recovered. They lost the battle but they handed a victory to their North Vietnamese sponsors.
At the same time that we have a general flirting with declaring victory, we have Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the former commander of our troops in Iraq, saying in a speech over the weekend that he knew Iraq was lost the day after he arrived in June 2003 to accept command.
He called the war “a nightmare with no end in sight.” He didn’t spare himself blame. He was in charge when the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke, and he should have known better, and done better. He was forced into retirement and lost the opportunity to get a fourth star as a result, though the Army did clear him of wrongdoing.
Sanchez’ bleak view of the war reminds us how much the eye of the beholder has to do with measuring success or failure in Iraq. Victory is just a word; it has to be backed up by reality. Casualties are down in Iraq, and attacks are down, but the Iraqi army is still far from being able to perform at a level that U.S. commanders would consider competent. And the administration still has not offered a definable objective for U.S. troops to accomplish. If it’s reconciliation between three disparate groups, that’s not going to happen as long as the Shiites are in the majority and determined to reap the benefits of majority rule. The concept of protecting minority rights for a Sunni population that mistreated them for so many years is beyond their comprehension.
For the occasional glimmer of good news out of Iraq, there is still plenty of bad news. At least two million people have left the country. Arguably there’s nobody left to kill in many communities because ethnic cleansing has taken place. General Sanchez spoke out critically of U.S. policy and then went back into apparent seclusion at his home in San Antonio. He made what you could call the O’Neill mistake. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who was fired early in President Bush’s first term, challenged Bush’s grasp of economic policy and said planning for the Iraq invasion began even before the 9/11 attacks. He had one good blast in the media, and was never heard from again. The Bush White House is not known for its tolerance.
When news of Sanchez’ comments broke, the White House was quick to respond that he was part of the problem, and that any remarks he makes at this late date should be discounted as sour grapes. Whatever the degree of Sanchez’ personal culpability in what went wrong in Iraq, that shouldn’t undercut his opinion as to the success or failure of current operations. He should be heard. A news blackout serves no one.
Published in The Messenger 10.19.07