WASHINGTON – Coalition forces succeeded years ago in toppling the government of Saddam Hussein, but a declaration of "victory" in Iraq has proven elusive. With U.S. troops still in the country fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgents, few can agree on how to define success.
Administration officials and military analysts suggest that a U.S. victory in Iraq would mean leaving behind a country that can maintain a functioning democracy rather than serve as an incubator for terrorism.
"Victory is a stable, Iraqi government and democracy," said FOX News military analyst and retired Col. David Hunt, who added that Americans need to get over their "World War II armistice on the battleship idea of victory" because it just doesn't fit this war.
Only the Iraqis can achieve that goal, added Hunt. "I don't have a lot of faith that the Iraqi government will be able to have, what we first started talking about, a victory."
Retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson, a Washington-based military analyst, said victory in his mind would be to help the Iraqis defeat the insurgencies raging in that country, hand over the controls and leave intact.
"I would prefer to use the word 'transition,' and I would say a successful transition would be when the United States' security forces have certified that the last of the target Iraqi military forces and police no longer need American support or advisers," Anderson said. "From a purely military view, that would dictate that we have done our part of the security job."
In addition, he said, political success would mean an Iraqi government in which minority Sunnis and even insurgents are integrated as partners in the government rather than enemies of the state, and the government has control of the vast majority of the country.
"Is that victory? No, not at least the way (President) Bush was seeing it in 2003, but it would, in my mind, be an acceptable conclusion," said Anderson.
While their definitions seem tempered by events over the last four years, President Bush and his strongest supporters remain hopeful, still defining victory as defeating the arbiters of terrorist ideology across the Middle East and essential for setting a democratic example there.
"Success in Iraq would bring something powerful and new — a democracy at the heart of the Middle East, a nation that fights terrorists instead of harboring them, and a powerful example for others of the power of liberty to overcome an ideology of hate," Bush said in a speech in East Grand Rapids, Mich., on April 20.
Fred Kagan, an American Enterprise Institute military expert whose proposal for a troop surge was later echoed in the administration's plans to add five U.S. combat brigades in Baghdad and al-Anbar province this spring, argues victory "remains both possible and necessary" and expectations need not be lowered either.
In his latest report, "Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq," Kagan defines success in Iraq as "helping to establish an Iraqi state that is at peace with itself and its neighbors, has a democratic government seen as legitimate by the overwhelming proportion of its people and is a reliable ally in the War on Terror."
But much of the current rhetoric involving the war is centered less on lofty goals and more on getting an emergency spending bill that will pay for continued operations there. That redirection accompanies an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll of 1,004 adults taken April 20-April 23 in which 55 percent said that victory is unachievable in Iraq. Thirty-six percent said they still had hope for victory.
In a speech last month to the Heritage Foundation, Vice President Dick Cheney had nearly finished speaking before mentioning the prospect of success in Iraq. After much talk about defeating Islamic terrorism, showing perseverance in the region and blasting a timetable for withdrawal that was included in a spending bill that Bush vetoed this week, Cheney reminded his audience of the administration's original goals.
"The course we have chosen is not an easy one for America," he said. "But it will be far easier on the conscience of America when we see it through, sparing millions from suffering, and leaving behind a free and democratic Iraq … We will press on in this mission, and we will turn events towards victory."
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a 2008 presidential candidate and defender of the president's surge policy, also warned against an early departure in a speech at Virginia Military Academy delivered two days before Cheney's. He used the word "defeat" 11 times and the word victory none.
But McCain stressed that victory may not even be the United States' to achieve.
"We all agree a military solution alone will not solve the problems of Iraq. There must be a political agreement among Iraqis that allows all groups to participate in the building of their nation, to share in its resources and to live in peace with each other," he said, adding, "Unless (Iraq's leaders) accept their own obligations to all Iraqis, we will all fail, and America, Iraq and the world will have to live with the terrible consequences."
In the Democratic presidential debate at South Carolina State University last week, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton echoed the sentiment. "This is not (America's) war to win or lose," she said, rather it is the Iraqis who are steering their own fate.
Then v. Now
In a report issued in November 2005 by the National Security Council entitled "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," victory was defined in stages. In the short term, Iraq would make "steady progress" in fighting terrorists, building democratic institutions and standing up the Iraqi security forces. This would be followed by the "medium-term" goal of the Iraqi-led forces defeating the terrorists, the institution of a fully constitutional government in place and steady economic progress.
The last, long-term stage would find Iraq "peaceful, united, stable and secure, well integrated into the international community and a full partner in the global war on terrorism."
Such imagery has recently taken a back seat to more sober assessments of what victory might mean in Iraq, particularly whether it can even be achieved by Americans at all.
"The administration doesn't like me to say it, but it is a civil war," said former Secretary of State Colin Powell, in an April 17 speech in Indiana. "The troop surge, I wish it luck, but it is like putting a heavier lid on a boiling pot. There is a limit to how much we can do."
Days earlier in a speech in Grand Rapids, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen said, "There is no happy ending coming out of this situation."
Michael Scheuer, author and a former CIA agent who was in charge of an intelligence unit dedicated to tracking terrorist leader Usama bin Laden, said the United States can still achieve military success by putting in hundreds of thousands of more troops and bombing the country into submission. U.S. voters have little appetite for such a plan.
But even if that strategy were pursued, Scheuer noted, political success for the Iraqis would likely mean a government that did not fit an American bill of "democracy." Iraq's current constitution gives wide berth to Islamic law, and the government is already dominated by religious interests with strong ties to Iran.
Chances that any established government there will be less hostile to neighboring Israel are slim. "It's almost the classic lose-lose situation," he said.
Not everyone is giving up. Kagan said with the right military and non-military commitments from the United States and Iraq, the fledgling country should demand no less than the NSC's objectives.
"Success requires increasing the opportunities for the American people to become involved in the war effort, to assist the outstanding soldiers and civilians engaged in this vital struggle and to understand the consequences of both success and failure in Iraq," he said.