Critics of the Iraq war originally predicted that the Surge would fail. In fairness to the critics, there was reason to be skeptical. We had tried many other things to no effect. So there was no way of predicting the outcome of the Surge, although that’s a reason to reserve judgment rather than forecast failure. It would have been more prudent of the critics to withhold judgment. To wait and see.
However, even the critics now admit that the Surge has been surprisingly successful. This hasn’t caused them to oppose the Iraq war. They have simply changed their argument. Their revised objection is that even though we’re making military progress, there has been no corresponding political progress. So the Surge is still a failure.
And it may be the case that the effort to democratize Iraq will fail. That remains to be seen. Would this mean that we lost the war?
That all depends on how you define winning and losing. It’s true that Bush set the bar pretty high. But I’m not a spokesman for Bush, so I’m not bound by his definition.
I would say, rather, that if we defeat our enemies militarily, then we have won. That’s the best message we can send to our enemies. If you attack us, you will lose. We will beat you on your own turf. You may start it, but we will finish it. To pick a fight with the American military is a losing proposition.
Gen. Petraeus has been achieving results under the most disadvantageous circumstances imaginable. That sends a very impressive message to the militants and wannabes. Force is all they understand. Jihadis live by the sword. That’s how they measure success or failure.
So if we do withdraw from Iraq without having established a working democracy, I don’t regard that as a lost cause. Even if democracy is a lost cause, that doesn’t mean the war was a lost cause.
And this is irrespective of whether you think we should have gone into Iraq in the first place. There’s a sense in which the outcome is all the more impressive if it was predicated on a miscalculation. Despite the odds, one great General with the greatest military on earth was able to turn what was—at best—a stalemate or war of attrition, and—at worst—a losing battle, into a victorious strategy. If we can best the enemy on those terms, then we can best the enemy on any terms.