In 'victory,' both power and peril

The word now peppers Bush's speeches on Iraq - by design.

If there is one word the White House wants the American public to associate with the war in Iraq, it is probably "victory." President Bush said it 11 times Wednesday in his speech on rebuilding Iraq - following victory's 15 mentions in his address on the training of Iraqi forces last week.

From the administration's point of view, the benefits of this rhetorical approach are obvious. As a theme, victory is positive, even uplifting. It might serve to counter any public impression that the US is stuck in an Iraqi morass.

But the Bush team's definition of what would constitute victory in Iraq remains fuzzy, say critics. And in using such a powerful word - especially in phrases such as "complete victory" - US officials may have set themselves a dauntingly high goal. As the president himself has said, the nature of the Iraqi conflict means it won't end, as World War II did, with the finality of a signing ceremony on the deck of a US battleship.

"Ending any war is hard," says Lee Feinstein, executive director of the Task Force Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. "He'd have been better off to say, 'We'll leave Iraq better than we found it.' "

The sudden prominence of victory as a central part of the administration's discourse regarding Iraq probably isn't the result of a speech writer's whim. Duke University political scientist Peter Feaver has long insisted that the support of the American public for any war depends crucially on whether they think it will succeed - and Dr. Feaver recently joined the White House staff as a special adviser.

In fact, an electronic signature shows that Feaver created the computer file for "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," posted Nov. 30 on the White House website, according to The New York Times.

The core of the argument made by Feaver and his colleagues at Duke is that polling shows US voters aren't affected by rising war casualties if they expect the war in question to result in a US victory.

"When the public thinks victory is not likely, even small [casualty] costs will be highly corrosive," says a June 2005 paper by Feaver and fellow Duke political scientists Christopher Gelpi and Jason Reifler.

Not all polling experts accept this conclusion. Even if the thesis is correct, other critics say, the public needs more than rhetoric to believe in eventual triumph.

The problem with Iraq isn't that the administration hasn't been talking about victory enough, says Ivo Daalder, senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. It's the continued strength of the insurgency.

"If rhetoric doesn't match what's happening on the ground, then the rhetoric will be discounted," says Mr. Daalder.

The emphasis on victory is more than a twist in their public diplomacy effort, administration officials insist. Bush's speeches - and the newly public "Strategy for Victory" document - undertake the important effort of defining what victory in Iraq will look like, they say.

On Wednesday, in his speech before the Council on Foreign Relations, the president said US victory will be achieved when terrorists and Saddamists can no longer threaten Iraq's democracy, when Iraqi security forces can protect their own citizens, and when Iraq is not a safe haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the US.

"We will accept nothing less than complete victory," said Bush.

Given the stakes involved, and the effort already made, the administration has no choice but to nail its flag to the mast in this matter, say administration officials.

"For us, failure in Iraq is just not an option," said Eric Edelman, undersecretary of Defense for policy, at a Council on Foreign Relations seminar Dec. 1.

Yet for all its specificity, the administration's talk about victory may leave crucial terms undefined. Victory may come when the insurgency no longer threatens the Iraqi government - but what does "threaten" mean, in this sense? Will Bush's "complete victory" accept some vestigial insurgent activity? And how do US troop levels there connect to all of this? Might they decline before complete victory occurs?

After all, war termination is a messy and unpredictable business, say experts. That can be true even for uncontested victors. In the waning days of World War II, the US wrestled with whether to allow Japan's emperor to remain on his throne. In the end, he was permitted to stay, perhaps easing tensions at the beginning of the American occupation.

Nor are all victories complete. The end of the Korean conflict saw an independent South Korea preserved, but North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung remained in power. The country he left behind is today an unpredictable hermit nation with a rapidly developing nuclear weapons capability.

But by being so forceful about complete victory the administration may have raised public expectations for a crisp, clear ending to the US experience in Iraq - an ending that may not occur during Bush's presidency, if ever.

"The administration made a deliberate choice to use the word 'victory,' " says Mr. Feinstein of the Council on Foreign Relations. "They've created a serious problem for themselves."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.