A lot of pundits have been saying that Kerry must present a clear plan for how he would “win” in Iraq or at least provide for an “exit” strategy. If he can’t do that then he is through, say the pundits.
Well, Kerry is throughly screwed because he can’t offer a plan to “win” in Iraq.
On the other hand neither can Bush.
Nobody can provide a clear plan for “winning” in Iraq because the conflict in Iraq cannot be “won.”
We are not going to either “win” or “lose” in Iraq because concepts of winning and losing do not apply to this type of conflict.
Culturally the idea of winning and losing implies that a discrete event will occur that one can point to and say whether one has won or lost. We get this idea from ritualized competitions such as sports, trials, elections and some kinds of warfare. In each case, there exists a time or state whereby one competitor can be said to have won or lost. WWII was a ritualized war in many respects in that it was fought between coherent nation-states that shared rituals for ending the conflict. We had a V-E day and a V-J day. The Cold War by contrast did not end so much as just putter out. We can say we won the Cold War but we can’t definitively point to a certain day when that victory occurred. More to the point, at the time the Cold War was winding down nobody could look at any particular day or event and say, “that’s it, we won.”
This isn’t just about semantics, however. The concept of winning and losing has real political effects. In both Korea and Vietnam, politically significant numbers of people asked, “how are we going to win?” and “we’re never going to win.” What they were really saying was that they could not imagine any discrete event that would signal that either conflict had definitively ended. They were correct in thinking so. Both conflicts were mere battles in the greater Cold War. Even if America had never abandoned Indochina it is probable that the fighting there would have gone on at some level at least until the fall of the Soviet Union. The basic conflict in Korea is still ongoing even after the end of communism everywhere else.
We “lost” in Vietnam in part because Americans could not adapt to the concept of a fuzzy war, one that had no clear beginning and no clear criteria for ending. We face the same challenge in Iraq. People ask the seemingly reasonable question, “How and when do we win?” but the question is functionally meaningless.
The Cold War and the War on Terror are more like running a business than playing a game. Businesses, and more accurately business people, don’t win or lose in the final analysis. If Business A has a 60% market share while its competitor, Business B, has a 40% percent share has Business A “won”? Usually, we would say no because there is no discrete end to their competition. Both businesses could be raking in money hand over fist. The people involved could be getting so wealthy that they could not care less what the other guy was doing. Most business competition is like that. A business may have hundreds of competitors in many different areas and seldom does one business gain the type of dominance that would qualify it as winner in the sense of sports or warfare. It’s all open ended. You make money, you lose money but it’s never really over except one day you look back and think, “hey I did a pretty good job.”
Neither Kerry nor Bush will be able to provide a road map to victory because the destination is ambiguous. If we succeed, we will not realize it at the time. It will be as in the Cold War, we will look around one day and suddenly realize that Iraq is largely peaceful and stable. We will realize that our goals were accomplished and everybody except leftist academicians will say, “we won, I don’t know exactly how or exactly when, but we won.”