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The Meaning Of Victory

The Meaning Of VictoryIn a Providence Journal op-ed, Fletcher School expert William C. Martel warns that political leaders in the United States are risking defeat in Iraq because they have not yet defined the meaning of victory.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [04.09.07] For the past five years, United States President George W. Bush has talked publicly about a “victory” in Iraq. But as one expert from Tufts’ Fletcher School pointed out in a recent op-ed in the Providence Journal, U.S. political leaders have yet to define what a “victory” for the United States really means. Without a clear understanding of the country’s desired outcome for the war, he wrote that success will likely be elusive.

“For policymakers, the questions now are what form of victory is achievable or acceptable in Iraq, and where can the U.S. go from here?” he wrote in the Journal.

According to Martel, there are three levels of victory in war: tactical, political-military and grand strategic. Tactical victories, which are the most basic, involve success in battle, he explained. Political-military victories, the most common, are a bit more complicated. “The state achieves its principal political and military goals, armies surrender or just fade away, and peace terms are negotiated,” Martel wrote.

Grand strategic victories, according to Martel, are the most complex—and the most difficult to achieve. They “fundamentally reorder the international system,” he wrote in the Journal, pointing to World War II as an example because it “clearly transformed global politics.”

Since the conflict in Iraq began in 2003, the United States has achieved both tactical and political-military victories, Martel explained in the newspaper. But even though the United States succeeded in defeating the Iraqi military and removing Saddam Hussein from power, those political-military victories were “inadequate,” he said.

“The reason is the insurgency, which provoked a civil war in Iraq,” Martel wrote in the newspaper. “Sunnis, Shi'a militias, and foreign terrorists kill precisely to settle old scores and demonstrate that the U.S. has not achieved victory.”

Ensuring that the United States does not prevail is the insurgents’idea of a grand strategic victory, Martel wrote. The equivalent for Bush, he added, is transforming Iraq into a democracy.

But grand strategic victories are not easy to accomplish, according to Martel. “In the face of Iraq's civil war, plummeting U.S. domestic support, and congressional votes for a funding cutoff,” he wrote, Bush may be realizing that himself.

“Most tellingly, in remarks on March 19 about the fourth anniversary of the Iraq War, Bush did not mention victory even once, saying we would ‘prevail’ instead,” Martel wrote.

Instead of a grand strategic victory, he pointed out that the United States could focus on achieving “an unending series of tactical victories in battle.” The downside to that strategy, he wrote, is that it “will not de-escalate Iraq's civil war or restore order.”

A political-military victory may be a better option, according to Martel.

“The U.S. could set its sights on political-military victory, hoping that Sunnis, Shi'a, and Kurds will work together,” he wrote in the newspaper. “Bush's strategy is to shift responsibility onto the Iraqi government and limit American responsibility for transforming the region. While it falls short of what the Bush administration hoped to achieve—because sectarian violence makes this goal more illusive—this may be the most realistic option.”

In any case, it’s critical that U.S. political leaders to come to an agreement soon on the meaning of victory.

“Failing to define victory—agreeing on what it means and defending that policy with action—not only risks, but encourages, defeat,” he wrote.

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