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Judging success and failure in Iraq

How should Americans judge the success or failure of the intervention in Iraq. There is no firm answer. But everyone agrees it will take a very long time to really know. Brave New World.
Eid Approaches in Baghdad
A U.S. soldier on patrol in front of a Baghdad mosque earlier this year.Mario Tama / Getty Images File
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How can success or failure be judged in Iraq?

With Iraqis reclaiming a share of their sovereignty next week, the Bush administration and its allies, as well as its foes both domestic and foreign, are struggling to come to terms with this question.

Ideologues on both sides will insist the answer is already there, plain to see.

Says one side: 'Iraq is a tremendous victory.’

Responds the other: 'Iraq is a humbling disaster.'

But thinking people in all of these camps, including the one fighting against the American-led occupation in Iraq, will be aware of an important fact: No matter how well or badly next week’s transfer of power goes, it will be a very long time before anyone can definitively answer that question.

“There is a diminishing significance to July 1 and, for that matter, to November 5, when  it comes to judging how things are going in Iraq,” says Richard Murphy, a retired Reagan administration State Department official and former ambassador to Saudi  Arabia. “Things just aren’t going to be that different on either of those dates. This requires a longer perspective.”

A question of time
Most experts, including those intimately involved in Iraq policy as well as those who actively opposed the war, believe it will take longer than the four and a half months left in President George W. Bush’s first term to reach any lasting conclusions on the war.

“I guess success is when the Iraqis are able to do this without our help,” says Rick Francona, a former American intelligence officer and MSNBC military analyst who has worked extensively in Iraq. “That’s not for some time. Right now, Iraqis are still standing on the sidelines, waiting to see who wins to see which side to jump in on.”

But how long will they wait? Will they jump on June 30, 2005, the first anniversary of the handover? Next autumn, when a new constitution is voted on? Or December, 2005, when Iraqis directly elect a government for the first time in their history? Perhaps never?

“I think we have to be very careful about declaring victory and walking away, as we did in Vietnam,” says Murphy. “That is a strong temptation, I understand. But we imposed very high standards on our intervention — not just military victory, but democracy and a single Iraq free of terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. That will take many years.”

Some dismiss this as hand-wringing.

Ray Tanter, another Reagan-era national security official and self-described “neo-conservative,’ sees the war’s five primary goals as either met or on their way there.

“The first goal was regime change, and I say, ‘Voila! Success!' A second goal, making sure that Saddam Hussein is not in a position to transfer WMD to Osama bin Laden, is also satisfied. A third goal is leaving a more representative government in Iraq than the one we removed, and that will be achieved on the 30th of June.”

Two others — creating in Iraq a ‘beacon’ for Arab democratization and sending a message to other ‘rogue regimes’ to steer clear of the U.S. — are well within reach, he says.

“Short of civil war,” says Tanter, “Iraq is a success.”

A question of stamina
But history may impose a stricter interpretation.

It will not be enough, says James Dobbins, who was the Bush administration’s first envoy to Afghanistan after the Taliban fell, to fix on milestones like the transfer of power, or the December 2005 general election, or the earlier, more limited Iraqi national assembly elections in January 2005.

“You can measure it at any time with this simple metric: If the number of dead Iraqis is going up we’re losing, and if the number going down we’re winning,” says Dobbins, who also served as the top U.S. official in post-war Kosovo. “Right now, you’d have to give a negative assessment on that basis.”

Dobbins says the handover could change that — “I hope it does,” he says — but worries that ultimately the U.S. has gotten itself into something that is neither war, per se, nor post-war peacekeeping.

“At this stage, we’ve unfortunately allowed an insurgency to develop that’s more than just foreign terrorists and regime holdouts,” Dobbins says. “It has nationalist elements, and these kinds of movements don’t tend to go away overnight.”

A question of troops
Nor is this a simple question of bringing the troops home.

Murphy, who ran Middle East policy for Ronald Reagan, says deadlines like the handover next week  tend to focus attention on metrics that don’t really mean much in the long run. “The temptation is to assert a success which may be more apparent than real.”

His example is when American officials tried to cast America’s 1973 withdrawal from Vietnam the previous year as a “peace with honor” that left in place a pro-American government and held the ideological foe of the day, communism, at bay.

“One day it will be written: this was America’s finest hour,” President Richard Nixon told the nation in announcing the withdrawal in March 1973.

Two years later, North Vietnam overran the South and the country has been communist ever since.

A question of perspective
To a great extent, of course, the question of whether the United States intervention in Iraq has been successful will depend on the criteria one sets. Success, in this regard, is in the eye of the beholder.

For those who opposed the war from the start, the very fact that the bulk of the United States military’s offensive power is tied up in something other than the search for Osama bin Laden is, by definition, a defeat.

“"There is nothing that bin Laden could have hoped for more than the American invasion and occupation of Iraq," says a high-ranking CIA official in a new book, “Imperial Hubris,” written anonymously. Plenty of others have stated so in public.

Like-minded people also will argue that, because weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were not found and links to al-Qaida have not been proven, the war dealt a devastating blow to American credibility.

“I can tell you it has played hell with our ability to get people behind us on Iran,” says a U.S. diplomat currently involved in rallying support for tighter controls on Iran’s burgeoning nuclear program. “You hear it once a day: ‘How do we know this isn’t another Iraq?’"

A question of history
Down the line, if the final outcome is a stable Iraqi state that prods or frightens neighbors like Iran and Syria into behaving in a way more consistent with American national interests, the warts and fissures in Bush administration policy may be forgotten.

“In the big geopolitical picture, if we’re able to use Iraq as a springboard to pressure Iran and Syria and force changes in those countries, all of this will make sense,” says Francona, who served as a military attaché in Baghdad and Damascus during the 1980s. “Right now that’s hard to imagine, but it isn’t impossible.”

Murphy, also publicly critical of this administration’s priorities, agrees:

“If in five years the country remains together, the minorities are respectful of majority and vice versa, and has not lapsed into a militant Islamic leadership, it’s a hell of a success story,” he says. “But we may find the costs in the broader Arab world are too high to see things through in Iraq. The Middle East I know is not open to transformation. It is a place where guns and money will change things temporarily, but where older patterns or culture and religion always reassert themselves. In the end, I guess I do believe we have been very arrogant. To be successful in any real, lasting way, we will need to be very lucky.”