Back in July 2010 Senator John McCain told Geoff Millard, board chairman of Iraq Veterans Against the War, that his organization was irrelevant. “You’re too late. We already won that one” was McCain’s comment. Senator McCain has never defined exactly what he meant by winning. Nor, for that matter, have the various media outlets that follow his line. Nevertheless, they certainly want to convince the American people that their nation has won a war in Iraq. If you walk down the street of your home town and ask people what winning in Iraq means here is some of the things you might hear:
1. We successfully got rid of Saddam Hussein and his dictatorship
2. We defeated the regular Iraqi army that was fielded against our forces
3. We have successfully brought democracy to Iraq
4. We prevented Saddam Hussein from developing and using weapons of mass destruction
5. We destroyed Al Qaeda’s ability to use Iraq as a stage for terrorist attacks against the U.S.
Numbers 1and 2 are true and constitute the classical definitions of “winning” a war. If anyone had pushed John McCain to define his terms he may well have fallen back on these traditional criteria for success. Number 3 is highly questionable. After our invasion, we configured elections for Iraq which were then held in the midst of a civil war. It is now apparent that the Iraqi people are so divided, both ethnically and in terms of religious sects, that the electoral process has only led to stalemate. The most recent elections (March 2010) have not produced a conclusive winner and the various Iraqi parties have not been able to negotiate a stable coalition government. The resulting political vacuum has once more opened the door to civil war, and terrorist attacks on civilian targets are on the increase. Numbers 4 and 5 are false and always have been. They are two major variants on the lies fed to the American Congress and people by the administration of George W. Bush.
The End (Victory) is Suppose to Justify the Means
Winning a war is an end that allegedly makes the consequences of fighting it worthwhile. What are the consequences of
U.S. fighting in Iraq that are supposedly justified by victory? Or, to use an old British naval saying, what is the “butcher’s bill?”
According to the Brookings Institute’s Iraq index as well as other sources, here are some of the results “justified” by victory: somewhere between 600,000 and 1 million Iraqi civilians have been killed. If we were to build a memorial wall with the names of all these dead Iraqis (as we should), it wwould stretch from one end of Washington DC to the other. No one has an accurate estimation of the Iraqi injured. In comparison about 4400 U.S. soldiers have been killed and 32,000 injured. Over 2 million Iraqis have been displaced from their homes. The unemployment rate in Iraq, depending on the area, ranges as high as 60%. Over 20% of Iraqi children are malnourished. The number of Iraqis now living in slum conditions is about 53% of the population. An estimated 40% of all Iraq professionals have fled the country. Electricity and water services are intermittent. Health care facilities are wrecked and services are inadequate. Educational services have been so disrupted that many of Iraq’s wartime generation are semi-literate. And these facts speak only to the U.S. invasion and occupation. It is to be remembered that the invasion followed upon years of sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of additional Iraqis while crippling the country’s economy.
In the classical model of modern war, the winner is suppose to help put all of this back together after the fighting stops. Thus, as was done after World War II, the winner installs a new and friendly government in the defeated country and then assists that government in rehabilitating the economy. Allegedly, the defeated country is thereby transformed into a better place for all the survivors. This way the defeated become an ally of the conqueror rather than a continuing enemy.
This has not happened in Iraq. The United States has given the Iraqi government 802,000 pieces of used military and military related equipment, and has allowed (through incompetence or corruption) various contractors (including some Iraqis) to steal around 8 billion dollars worth of “aid” funds. There are allegedly “provincial reconstruction teams” among the American forces still in Iraq, but their impact has been and will be minimal relative to the need. To date, that is about it. While American “combat forces” are now withdrawn into Kuwait, 50,000 U.S. troops (one-third of the total force) are still in Iraq to “fight terrorism” and we still maintain over 90 military bases in the country. This force will be supplemented over time with private mercenaries hired by the State Department.
So, What Really Does Winning Mean?
So, what really does Mr. McCain’s victory amount to? We invaded a country and overthrew its dictator. Americans (largely unaware of the mayhem listed above) might take pride in that accomplishment if it were not for the fact that we did so on false pretenses. In other words, we initiated war on the basis of lies rather than actual self-defense. Such an action constitutes the most serious of international crimes. It is the one for which the Nazi leaders were tried at Nuremberg. According to the position taken by President Obama, no American will be held accountable in U.S. courts for the commission of this of crime or the additional war crimes that ensued from it. Having gone to war based on lies, we destroyed the country of Iraq. The present caretaker government is made up of people who, at best distrust us, and at worst hate our guts. That any future Iraqi ruling establishment should be our ally is highly doubtful. More likely it will eventually align itself with Iran. Having put our own United States into a trillion dollars worth of debt, in part to fight the war in Iraq, we have not committed ourselves to any serious effort to put the wreckage back together. Most Americans probably feel no moral responsibility to do so. In their localism, they lament their own dead, but seem incapable of lamenting those they have killed. That is your victory.
Obviously Senator McCain, in claiming that we have won in Iraq, has not gone one millimeter beyond the most simplistic, and therefore utterly misleading, criteria for victory. Nor will he ever do so. Much of the American public, over time, may well adopt his narrow frame of reference. If their chosen source of information is the mass media, how could it be otherwise? You might argue that there is plenty of counter information on the Iraq war out there, specifically on the Web. How about Wikileaks, et.al.? It is there all right, but it is not accessed by the majority of U.S. citizens. They use the Web primarily to correspond with their friends and to shop. As to the world beyond their local environment, it is the world created for them by Fox, CNN, and the like.
Toward the end of his life the English poet John Dryden (1631-1700) observed that “even victors are by victories undone.” This is probably the case with America’s “victory” in Iraq. One might remember that when the U.S. lost the war in Vietnam, Southeast Asia did not implode. It may not play out that way in the Middle East. Our alleged triumph has served to destabilize not just Iraq but that entire region, and will have to pay the piper for many years to come.
Lawrence Davidson is a Professor of Middle East History at West Chester University in West ChesterPennsylvania.He is the author of America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood (University Press of Florida, 2001), Islamic Fundamentalism (Greenwood Press, 2003), and, co-author with Arthur Goldschmidt of the Concise History of the Middle East, 8th and 9th Editions (Westview Press, 2006 and 2009). His latest book is entitled Foreign Policy, Inc.: Privatizing American National Interest (University of Kentucky Press, 2009). Professor Davidson travels often and widely in the Middle East. He also has taken on the role of public intellectual in order to explain to American audiences the impact of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
Davidson is a regular contributor to Opinion Maker.