What Is Success?

One line of thought that many liberals, myself included, have entertained from time to time is the idea that on some level George W. Bush knows perfectly well that Iraq is lost and just wants to kick the can past January 2009 so that he can blame his successor for the defeat. But what if this is wrong? Looked at from a certain point of view, the war is actually doing fine. In particular, if you think of the main goal of the war as simply being to maintain a large American military presence in a “strategical vital” country — as Bush’s resort to Korea analogies suggests — then the moment of maximum danger really came in spring 2004 when it looked for a little bit as if the Sadrist forces might team up with nationalist Sunni insurgents to present a common front against the occupation.

And, indeed, while the absence of political reconciliation is probably Iraq’s biggest problem, it’s not a particularly large problem for the American military presence. On the country, a unified Iraq — especially one swayed by Iraqi public opinion — might be very likely to give the US the boot. By contrast, in a divided and chaotic Iraq one can easily imagine the main players resenting the US presence but preferring it to anarchy. Indeed, Bush seems to have convinced both the Maliki government and the Anbar Salvation Front that they need American troops to protect them from each other. Meanwhile, the Kurds want us to defend them from the Turks, and the Turks want us to keep the Kurds in line and there’s really no sign of an end to the tensions and violence.

From one point of view it looks like a quagmire, but from another point of view it’s more-or-less ideal.