Professor Sam Crane claims that the war in Iraq is “lost.” But why doesn’t his post on the topic bother to confront, much less refute, the arguments on the other side?

Remember: Bush Lost the War

There is a lot of talk these days about how the “surge” in Iraq has worked and that “victory” is at hand. Rubbish. While it is true that the “surge” was one of several elements (the others being internal Iraqi political shifts beyond the control of US policy) that contributed to a reduction in violence, it has not produced a political settlement. And without a political settlement, Iraq remains a lost war.

Bush lost the war.

Perhaps, but Sam fails to make the case. Details below.

Keep in clear on what we are arguing about. This is not a debate about whether or not, given the information available in 2003, war was the best option. Nor is this a debate about whether or not, given what we know now, war in 203 was the best option. I am happy to grant (and, some days, even believe) that the war was a bad idea in both scenarios.

The issue here is whether or not the US is “winning” or “losing” the war today. Being a member of the reality-based community, I first check with the New York Times (here, here and here).

Two years ago, Anbar Province was the most lethal place for the Americans in Iraq, with a marine or a soldier dying here nearly every day. The provincial capital, Ramadi, was a moonscape of rubble and ruins. Islamic extremists controlled large pieces of territory, with some so ferocious in their personal views that they did not even allow the sale of bread.

On Monday, following a parade on a freshly paved street, American commanders formally returned responsibility for keeping order in Anbar Province, once the heartland of the Sunni insurgency, to the Iraqi Army and police force. The ceremony capped one of the starkest turnabouts in the country since the war began five and a half years ago.

In the past two years, the number of insurgent attacks against Iraqis and Americans in Anbar Province has dropped by more than 90 percent.

At first, I didn’t recognize the place.

On Karada Mariam, a street that runs over the Tigris River toward the Green Zone, the Serwan and the Zamboor, two kebab places blown up by suicide bombers in 2006, were crammed with customers. Farther up the street was Pizza Napoli, the Italian place shut down in 2006; it, too, was open for business. And I’d forgotten altogether about Abu Nashwan’s Wine Shop, boarded up when the black-suited militiamen of the Mahdi Army had threatened to kill its owners. There it was, flung open to the world.

Two years ago, when I last stayed in Baghdad, Karada Mariam was like the whole of the city: shuttered, shattered, broken and dead.

Abu Nawas Park — I didn’t recognize that, either. By the time I had left the country in August 2006, the two-mile stretch of riverside park was a grim, spooky, deserted place, a symbol for the dying city that Baghdad had become.

These days, the same park is filled with people: families with children, women in jeans, women walking alone. Even the nighttime, when Iraqis used to cower inside their homes, no longer scares them. I can hear their laughter wafting from the park. At sundown the other day, I had to weave my way through perhaps 2,000 people. It was an astonishing, beautiful scene — impossible, incomprehensible, only months ago.

When I left Baghdad two years ago, the nation’s social fabric seemed too shredded to ever come together again. The very worst had lost its power to shock. To return now is to be jarred in the oddest way possible: by the normal, by the pleasant, even by hope.

Market by market, square by square, the walls are beginning to come down. The miles of hulking blast walls, ugly but effective, were installed as a central feature of the surge of American troops to stop neighbors from killing one another.

“They protected against car bombs and drive-by attacks,” said Adnan, 39, a vegetable seller in the once violent neighborhood of Dora, who argues that the walls now block the markets and the commerce that Baghdad needs to thrive. “Now it is safe.”

As always, apologies to my Republican readers for relying so much on the Times. But, objective data back up the reporting. Consider the trends in US casualties, especially those related to combat. The last three months have seen, far and away, the fewest Allied casualties of the entire war.

Again, the issue is not: Was the war worth it? The issue is: Are we winning or losing in Iraq today? By any reasonable measure, things are going much, much better in Iraq now then they were 1 or 2 or 3 years ago.

Now, it is too hard a question, for this post, to explain why this is the case. Perhaps the Surge played a large part. Perhaps things would be going even better if the Surge had never happened. I also have little interest in recommending policy to the next Administration. My goal is simply to convince Sam (and others) that it would be useful to define some terms and, thereby, provide measures of success and failure. I would define “victory” in Iraq as involving.

1) Few/no US military deaths. As long as Iraqis keeping killing our soldiers, we have a problem. The fewer our casualties, the closer our victory. Do all US troops need to be out of Iraq for victory? No. We still have thousands of troops in Germany and Japan.

2) A unified Iraq. Sam mentioned this aspect of the debate in May, 2007.

But it is painfully clear now that the only reason why the US presence in Iraq has not been scaled back is the vanity of Bush and Cheney. We cannot “win” on the terms they have set out (a unified Iraq with “acceptable levels of violence”). We need to pull back, scale down, disengage from the “Surge”.

Now, being a good small government federalist, I am just as happy to see Iraq split up as I was to see Czechoslovakia do the same in 1993. But it seems fairly clear that the Iraqi people, on the whole, want a unified country, so I am happy to make this condition part of the definition of “victory.”

3) A peaceful Iraq. Civilian casualties in Iraq have been horrific (although not as horrific as some people claim). The lower the civilian death rate, the closer we are to victory.

4) Freedoms for the Iraqi people. Of course, Iraq is decades (centuries?) from being as free a society as, say, Williamstown, so the definition of victory must be a relative one. If Iraqi citizens have greater freedoms (both political and economic) than citizens of most/every other Middle Eastern country (except Israel), then we are a step closer to victory.

Are these the only 4 possible measures of victory and defeat? No. Sam (and others) are welcome to suggest their own. Yet they strike me as a reasonable summary. If fewer US troops are dying and Iraq is more unified, peaceful and free, then surely we are a step closer to victory and a step further away from defeat. That does not imply that the war was “worth” it. You can win a war that you never should have started.

By these 4 measures (and almost every other), the war in Iraq is going much better now than it was at any time prior to the summer of 2008. Given that progress, how can Sam be so certain that the war is lost? Michael Yon, the leading combat journalist of his generation, thinks that the war is won (and, again, not that the war was necessarily worth fighting).

Does this mean that the war will stay won, that there is no way for our enemies to regroup? Of course not. Do I know what the next year or two or ten will bring? No.

But it is a sad, and somewhat surprising, that Sam Crane does not think that arguments on the other side are worth refuting. Perhaps no one who disagrees with him reads his blog (besides me)?

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a Williams professor who a) Disagreed with Sam about Iraq and b) Spoke/blogged openly about his disagreement? A healthy college features a diversity of views among its faculty.

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