Losing wars is always bad. One of the major reasons for America’s current global predominance economically and politically is that America doesn’t lose wars very often. It seems likely, however, that the American people are about to be told that they have to decide to lose the Iraq war, that accepting defeat is better than trying to win, and that the consequences of defeat will be less than the costs of continuing to fight. For some, the demand to “end this war” is a reprise of the great triumph of their generation: forcing the U.S. to lose the Vietnam War and feel good about it. But even some supporters are being seduced by their own weariness of the struggle, and are being tempted to believe the unfounded defeatism — combined with the unfounded optimism about the consequences of defeat — that hyper-sophisticates have offered during every major conflict. Americans have a right to be weary of this conflict and to desire to bring it to an end. But before we choose the easier and more comfortable wrong over the harder and more distasteful right, we should examine more closely the two core assumptions that underlie the current antiwar arguments: that we must lose this war because we cannot win it at any acceptable cost, and that it will be better to lose than to continue trying to win.
The hyper-sophisticates of the American foreign-policy and intellectual establishment direct their invective at the whole notion of winning or losing. What’s the definition of winning? If we choose to withdraw from an ill-conceived and badly executed war, that’s not really losing, is it? We can and should find ways to use diplomacy rather than military power to handle the consequences of any so-called defeat. Less-sophisticated antiwar leaders on both sides will ask simply why the U.S. should continue to spend its blood and treasure to fight in “a far-off land of which we know little,” as Neville Chamberlain famously said in defense of his abandonment of Czechoslovakia to the Nazis. We have, after all, more pressing problems at home to which the Iraq war is only contributing. As is often the case, there is a level between over-thinking and under-thinking a problem that is actually thinking. Yes, in the world as it is, whatever line we sell ourselves, there really is victory and there really is defeat, the two are different, and their effects on the future diverge profoundly. And yes, the reason we must continue to spend money and the lives of the very best Americans in that far-off land is that the interests of every American are actually at stake.
We will consider below just how much of a diversion of resources away from more desirable domestic priorities the Iraq war actually is, but the more important point is simply this: Unless the advocates of defeat can show, as they have not yet done, that the consequences of losing are very likely to be small not simply the day after the last American leaves Iraq, but over the next five, ten, and 50 years, then what they are really selling is short-term relief in exchange for long-term pain. As drug addicts can attest, this kind of instant-gratification temptation is very seductive — it’s what keeps drug dealers in business despite the terrible damage their products do to their customers. “Just end the pain now and deal with the future when it gets here” is as bad a strategy for a great nation as it is for a teenager.
The antiwar party has continually adapted its arguments, but not its conclusions, to the changing circumstances on the ground. At the end of 2006, the argument was that Iraq was in full-scale sectarian civil war, that no conceivable additional American forces could reduce the violence, that the whole notion of having American troops try to do so was foolish, and that we should instead slash our forces dramatically and turn to diplomacy with Iraq’s neighbors. When the surge began, the antiwar party crowed loud and long that success was impossible, rising violence inevitable, and the whole business doomed to failure. When Coalition operations brought the violence under control, the antiwar party admitted that security had improved but insisted that the political progress the surge was supposed to enable had not occurred and would not occur. Additional arguments popped up to explain that the fall in violence had nothing to do with the surge anyway — it resulted from the Anbar Awakening, which had preceded the surge; or, alternatively, from the fact that American troops were simply buying and arming former Sunni insurgents; and from Moqtada al Sadr’s ceasefire that he could lift at any moment, plunging Iraq right back into complete chaos. The antiwar party rather gleefully seized upon recent Iraqi Security Forces operations against Sadr’s militia and other illegal gangs as proof of this — the general glee with which the antiwar party has greeted any setback in Iraq is extremely distasteful and unseemly, whatever domestic political benefits they believe they will receive from those setbacks. Even if one believes that defeat is inevitable and withdrawal necessary, no American should take pleasure in the prospect of that defeat. But the key talking points now seem to be two: that the war costs too much, and that it is already inevitably lost whatever temporary progress the surge may have achieved. What follows is an exploration of these and a few other key antiwar talking points.