Is This a ‘Victory’?


We hear again and again from Washington that we have turned a corner in Iraq and are on the path to victory. If so, it is a strange victory. Shiite religious parties that are Iran’s closest allies in the Middle East control Iraq’s central government and the country’s oil-rich south. A Sunni militia, known as the Awakening, dominates Iraq’s Sunni center. It is led by Baathists, the very people we invaded Iraq in 2003 to remove from power. While the US sees the Awakening as key to defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq, Iraq’s Shiite government views it as a mortal enemy and has issued arrest warrants for many of its members. Meanwhile the Shiite-Kurdish alliance that brought stability to parts of Iraq is crumbling. The two sides confronted each other militarily after the Iraqi army entered the Kurdish-administered town of Khanaqin in early September.

John McCain has staked his presidential candidacy on his early advocacy of sending more troops to Iraq. He says he is for victory while Barack Obama is for surrender; and polls suggest that voters trust McCain more on Iraq than they do Obama. In 2006, dissatisfaction with the Iraq war ended Republican control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. This year, in spite of being burdened with the gravest financial crisis since 1929 and the most unpopular president since the advent of polling, the Republican presidential nominee is running a competitive race.

The US sent more troops into Iraq in 2007 and violence has declined sharply in Anbar, Baghdad, and many other parts of the country. Sectarian killings in Baghdad are a fraction of what they were in 2006, although that city remains one of the world’s most dangerous places. In recent months, US casualties have been at their lowest level of the entire war. While it is debatable how much of this is the result of the “surge” in US troop strength, as opposed to other factors, the decline in violence is obviously a welcome development.

Less violence, however, is not the same thing as success. The United States did not go to war in Iraq for the purpose of ending violence between contending sectarian forces. Success has to be measured against US objectives. John McCain proclaims his goal to be victory and says we are now winning in Iraq (a victory that will, of course, be lost if his allegedly pro-surrender opponent wins). He considers victory to be an Iraq that is “a democratic ally.” George W. Bush has defined victory as a unified, democratic, and stable Iraq. Neither man has explained how he will transform Iraq’s ruling theocrats into democrats, diminish Iran’s vast influence in Baghdad, or reconcile Kurds and Sunnis to Iraq’s new order. Remarkably, neither the Democrats nor the press has challenged them to do so.


In January 2007, President Bush announced that he was sending 25,000 additional troops to Baghdad and Anbar province. Under a military strategy devised by the newly appointed Iraq commander, General David…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.