Over the last few months, by most accounts, the state of the American occupation in Iraq has deteriorated badly. The horrible images that portrayed the despicable treatment of Iraqis held in Abu Ghraib prison at the hands of American service personnel and were flashed round the world are the latest symptoms of good intentions gone wrong. No one in a position of authority would have condoned or tolerated such behavior. Yet, it happened.
It is possible that these images will produceamong Arabs and Muslims effects as searing as the fiery collapse of the Twin Trade Towers in New York on September 11 did for Americans. But can this latest incident also yield some good by provoking the administration to take a hard, fresh look at its policies, aims and actions in Iraq? Or, will the White House soldier on, believing that this succession of setbacks, culminating in the gross maltreatment of Iraqis, does not indicate a need for re-evaluating its overall Iraqi policy, a policy it thinks is still working?
As the administration determines what it should do, it might consider addressing two serious questions that require equally serious answers. First, how does the administration define “winning” in Iraq? And, second, what does “losing” mean?
If the administration acts as it has in the past, it will defer both questions. Winning is clear. Establishing a safe, secure and democratic Iraq is the aim, even if there is no definitive idea of how long that will take and what the costs in blood and treasure may be. The mere mention of losing arouses defeatism and historically has had no place in this or any other administration until, as in Vietnam, it was too late.
So how might we go about answering these questions? What is an acceptable and achievable definition of winning in Iraq? And, what constitutes losing?
At this stage, establishing a stable and secure state under the rule of law, with some form of pluralistic rule in which minority rights could be protected, seems to be the outer boundary of what is achievable. Further, whatever form the future Iraqi government takes, for the United States to win, that regime cannot become unfriendly or hostile, with basic interests in conflict with our own. Clearly, some will argue this definition is too limited, while others may think this is not a possible outcome given current circumstances.
Discussion of losing is problematic. Even raising the possibility of defeat risks becoming self-fulfilling, particularly in an election year. But, now that experienced professionals such as retired Army Lt. Gen. Bill Odom have publicly suggested withdrawal as perhaps the only sensible option, silence no longer seems a virtue in re-examining policy.
Some would consider withdrawal as losing. However, if a friendly, stable and pluralistic society emerged in Iraq as a result, who would complain? No, losing is far more serious and dangerous than merely withdrawing.
Losing could mean a post-Saddam Iraq that was worse off for Iraqis than it had been under the dictator. Losing also could mean a less safe and secure United States if Osama bin Laden and other jihadist extremists exploited defeat to empower and strengthen their causes and intensified their attacks against us and our friends around the world. And losing, if the United States were sufficientlyhumiliated, could mean a lessening of American responsibilities and presence around the world and an abdication of its crucial leadership role.
With better definitions for winning and losing, course corrections and options for Iraqi policy become clearer. If stability, the rule of law and some measure of pluralism are the aims, few Iraqis would take issue. Of course, the administration would have to admit that its original goals were a bridge too far. However, the costs of that admission will be less than those of failure.
And, if by losing we mean an Iraq worse off in the future than in the past or one energized against the United States, surely we have the means to prevent those outcomes.
Abu Ghraib prison was a shattering moral defeat for us. That shock, however, should cause us to think hard about Iraq, our future aims and what the art of the possible is. If the administration avoids considering these tough questions and their consequences, it is not certain, but close, that we will fail. Failure is not an option if this nation is to be safer and more secure. Here then is a collision between past reluctance by this administration to admit or accept fault and future reality that, to many, cannot grow much dimmer.
President Bush, by his own account, was transformed by September 11. Perhaps the revelations of Abu Ghraib will cause another transformation, at least in considering what winning and losing mean, and planning accordingly. Otherwise, greater tragedies lie ahead.