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Watch out for the 'victory myth'

ASK THIS | October 20, 2008

The reduction in violence in Iraq is allowing a significant segment of our society to believe what we all desperately want to be true: That the war began badly, but is ending as an honorable, glorious success. Author Christopher Fettweis proposes some reality-checking questions for political candidates.

By Christopher J. Fettweis

Q. Now that the violence is down in Iraq, do you feel like the United States is winning the war? 

Although people evaluate military operations in binary terms (one side wins while the other loses), reality is rarely that simple.  Guerrilla wars in particular tend not to have neat, unambiguous outcomes, and Iraq will be no different.  There will be no helicopters-off-the-embassy-roof moment, no surrender on a battleship, no triumphant parades through a conquered capital.   The most likely outcome of the war in Iraq is profound, prolonged ambiguity, rather than clear victory or defeat.

Instead of winning vs. losing, such wars are better evaluated with terms like success, failure or disaster.  Operation Iraqi Freedom was certainly a success in meeting its initial, short-term goal – to depose Saddam Hussein – but it has been a disaster in all others.  Since Iraq is in even worse shape than it was under Saddam by nearly every conceivable measure, the humanitarian element of the invasion clearly failed.  Enormous sacrifice in blood and treasure has not made the people of the United States any more safe, secure or prosperous.  In fact, the war has left this country far weaker economically, politically and morally than it was before. 

While the surge may have created the pre-conditions for unification in Iraq (though I remain a skeptic), it has a potential downside for the United States.  The reduction in violence has created room for the creation of a Victory Myth, which if we are not careful will allow a significant segment of our society to believe what we all desperately want to be true:  That the war began badly but is ending as an honorable, glorious success.

The country needs to know how the candidates have interpreted events in Iraq, and not just to be able to predict how they would handle future foreign policy crises.  The next president will potentially preside over a deeply divided country -- one that could resemble post-Vietnam America -- with Americans bitterly turning against each other, full of blame for how the war ended. Only adroit leadership in the White House will help us mitigate the symptoms of the coming Iraq Syndrome.  The beginning of such adroit leadership is a sound understanding of its lessons.

Q. Why exactly does the United States need to increase its military spending? What benefit comes from accruing from such staggering costs?

The United States spends more on its armed forces than the rest of the world combined.  Why exactly do we need to spend so much?  Basic logic would suggest that large benefits should accrue from such remarkably high costs.  What benefits does America see?  What threats do we need to devote more than $700 billion annually to address?  While one can hope that this is mostly campaign bluster, both candidates currently promise to increase the size of the armed forces.

The press should question the need for such expansion, especially given the historically low level of threat facing the United States, and the world.  An enormous military is hardly necessary to fight terrorism; after all, the challenge is not killing terrorists, but finding them.

Neither candidate seems to have noticed what is by far the most important security trend in modern times (or perhaps of any time):  War seems to be disappearing from the planet.  As a number of political scientists have been proclaiming for years, the incidence and intensity of all kinds of wars – interstate, civil, ethnic conflicts, etc. – are at historically low levels, and still declining.  Territorial disputes, which were the most common cause of warfare in the past, have dropped to record low levels, especially among the great powers.  Today, for the first time in history, countries are basically safe from attack by their neighbors.  Entire continents are experiencing their greatest stretch of peaceful relations.  Europe, South America, North America, Australia and Pacific Rim are all war-free.  Even in Africa conflict levels are lower than at any time in history.  Although it may seem counterintuitive, given how much attention is paid to Iraq, Afghanistan, Georgia and al Qaeda, a far greater percentage of the world’s population lives in societies at peace than at any time in world history.  That empirical fact should create a bit more optimism than it currently does.  And perhaps it ought to alter the way the United States runs its foreign policy.

We live in a golden age of peace and security.  All but one country seems to have noticed. If the Iraq experience is to teach us anything, it ought to be that we can certainly afford to show more restraint in our foreign affairs.  Indeed, given our current financial woes, many might suggest that we can hardly afford not to.

US Military
Posted by Bob
10/21/2008, 12:30 PM

Mr. Fettweis, Would not the presence and power of the US Military since WWII deserve a good deal of the credit for the trend of reduced global wars? What factors have given rise to this fact? Could the US global leadership, political, militarily and economically have anything to do with this state of affairs? Would the USSR still exist with the US leadership? Would China have reformed with US leadership? Etc., etc. I think your question is fine, but your response is incredibly naive and short-sighted and shows a lack of understanding of world events since WWII and the benefits to the world of American's leadership over this span. After all, the UN isn't located in NY for nothing is it?

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