In recent months it has become common practice to talk about what it will take to “win” — or what it would mean to “lose” — the war in Iraq. Recently the pace of that talk has accelerated. Just last week President Bush published a “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq,” presumably a follow-up to the speech in which he talked of “defeating the enemy.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has also assured Congress that “we are not losing this war.” Both were responding to politicians such as Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, who worried out loud a few months ago that “we’re losing in Iraq,” as well as the experts who voice the opinion, as one did in Foreign Affairs, that “the ongoing war in Iraq is not one that the United States can win.”
But what if all of this vocabulary — winning, losing, victory, defeat — is simply misplaced? There are, after all, wars that are not actually won or lost. There are wars that achieve some of their goals, that result only in partial solutions and that leave much business unfinished. There are wars that do not end with helicopters evacuating Americans from the embassy roof but that do not produce a victorious march into Berlin, either. There are wars that end ambivalently — wars, for example, such as the one we fought in Korea.
I hasten to explain that the comparison between Iraq and Korea does not come from nowhere: It has been suggested, implicitly and explicitly, by the Bush administration itself. In a speech last year, Vice President Cheney spoke of Harry Truman, the president who took us into Korea, as a model of “the kind of leadership required to defend freedom in our time.” Rumsfeld has also pointed out that Truman, like Bush, suffered from low popular approval because of the Korean War: “Back then a great many people questioned whether young Americans should face death and injury in Korea, thousands of miles from home, for a result that seemed uncertain at best. And today the answer is the Korean Peninsula.”
Well, yes — but actually it isn’t all that clear that “the Korean Peninsula” really represents a slam-dunk victory, to use Bush administration terminology. Certainly in 1953, when the cease-fire was signed, no one thought so. More than 33,000 Americans died — more than 15times as many as have died so far in Iraq — and more than 103,000 were wounded. Gen. Douglas MacArthur had defined “victory” as “the unification of the Korean Peninsula,” but in fact the war merely preserved the status quo. The South Korean government was independent, but too weak to survive without an American military presence. Red China, as we then called it, was probably strengthened by the war, as was the tyrannical North Korean dictator, Kim Il Sung.
Fifty years later, the picture is indeed more nuanced: South Korea is a democracy, an economic success, and proof that it was right to fight communism and prevent it from spreading. And yet North Korea, which we didn’t manage to push back, not only remains one of the world’s most repressive and paranoid dictatorships but has also become a nuclear power that poses a continuing threat to its neighbors. Good things came out of the war. Bad things came out of the war as well.
Iraq is not Korea, of course, and the Middle East is not Asia. But it is perfectly possible that the two conflicts might eventually resemble one another in the ambivalence of their conclusions. Although both the administration and its antiwar opponents speak as if there must be an either/or solution for Iraq — either democracy or Islamic fascism — it is perfectly possible that we end up with both. We may indeed create the first truly democratic Arab regime, with independent media, real elections and a relatively liberal political culture. But we may also, simultaneously, strengthen al Qaeda and its radical Islamic allies, in Iraq and the entire region. We may create a more entrepreneurial, globally integrated Iraq that can inspire economic reform throughout the Middle East. We may also create a deep well of international anti-American resentment that hampers our ability to conduct everything from trade negotiations to counterintelligence for decades to come.
It is even possible, in the end, that we really will help bring into existence a new generation of democratic Arab reformers across the Middle East — and that we will need to keep troops in the region for five decades to defend them. Would such an outcome mean the war was a “defeat”? Not necessarily. Would it mean the war was a “victory”? Not exactly. Can we, the nation that invented the Hollywood happy ending, live with such a conclusion? Hard to imagine, but we might not have a choice.