How Are We Doing in Iraq?

I have a fairly simple question, though few people seem to want to ask it the way I do. I do not want to know how “George W. Bush’s war is failing” or “how poor the President’s mismanagement” was. I do not want to know, in the words of the Democrat Majority Leader last spring, that the “war is lost” without realizing by whom. I do not even want to know how “the Americans” are doing or how “the British” or “the Japanese” or “the Australians” or any of the other coalition powers are doing. I just want to know how we are doing.

We live in a republic, not a single party dictatorship. We elect a President and a Congress and consent to live under the government that they run, even when they do so poorly. Few sane Americans are talking about revolution or assassination (exempting certain commentators from the likes of the DailyKos, though I guess I did specify ‘sane’). The President, as the executive, certainly made the case for war, but it is not as if Republicans supported it in bloc and Democrats opposed similarly. Both Democrats and Republicans voted for the war; both Democrats and Republicans voted against the war. Some voted for the war before they voted against the war. One of these legislators lost the popular vote and the White House to President George W. Bush in 2004 – a dramatic reaffirmation of the mandate of the people.

But most of this is irrelevant. We as Americans are fighting this war, and we should start acting like it. Recently, Katie Couric was quoted by Peter Wehner as saying: “The whole culture of wearing flags on our lapel and saying ‘we’ when referring to the United States and, even the ‘shock and awe’ of the initial stages, it was just too jubilant and just a little uncomfortable.” Why is Katie Couric uncomfortable? Her audience is primarily American. She is American. What is wrong with desiring success for our country?

We live in a new age of extraordinary media freedom. Had the American media covered the Battle of the Bulge in World War II like they covered the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the Western Allies might have been forced into peace talks by dwindling public support for the conflict at home and the Soviet Union might have conquered all of Nazi Germany, ensuring millions more would suffer under a Communist regime – that is, if the USSR was even able to do so without a second front. Despite the fact that both battles resulted in American strategic victories against determined counter-offensives by the enemy—who, in both cases, lost more men—the press covered them extremely differently. The first was a victory for us. The latter was a loss for the Americans.

Obviously, the media holds enormous influence in shaping the public perception of a war. In a free republic, an independent media plays an even more significant role in shaping debate about policy.

When we began to liberate Europe on D-Day, the newspapers were purposefully given the wrong plans so as to mislead the enemy. Coverage of the only enemy-inflicted deaths on the American Continent was censored by a government fearful that the Japanese might have learned of the limited success of one of their projects. In earlier wars as well, the press was hardly given a free hand: Abraham Lincoln notoriously censored and jailed reporters, finding it not such a disagreeable notion given the enormous reliance of the Confederacy on Union papers for intelligence (and vice versa). Today, the government does not resort to censorship, but perhaps media should perform some of it on its own, rather than revealing sensitive terror-fighting programs; or it should at least take a more pro-American stance. These days, it is not exactly clear that the authors of The New York Times editorial page read their paper’s own news section.

Perhaps our political partisanship has gotten the better of us. In 2006, MoveOn.org ran out of town on a rail a decent man who is liberal on practically every issue, and more significantly, was the Democratic Party’s Vice Presidential nominee only six years prior: Joe Lieberman, whose courageous stance on the war doomed him to be held in disgust by his fellow Democrats. A recent poll indicated that 1 out of every 5 Democrats thinks that the world would be better off if we lost the war, compared to 1 in 20 Republicans. The number three Democrat in the House of Representatives, Jim Clyburn, indicated during the summer that if General Petraeus gave a quality report of progress in Iraq in September (which he did) “there would be enough support [among conservative Democrats] to want to stay the course and if the Republicans were to stay united as they have been, then it would be a problem for us.” When one of the leaders of a political party says that success for America is a “problem” for his party, America has a problem.

There can be little doubt now that mismanagement has occurred on some level in Iraq in the past, and that we should have adopted counterinsurgency tactics earlier. But as Prussian Field-Marshal Helmuth von Moltke famously said, “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.” This is war, not a series of maneuvers. The fact of the matter is that the surge is demonstrating a reasonable degree of success – but that seems hardly relevant to Democrats so wed to leftist netroots’ dollars that they reject both the message and its messenger: decorated four star General David Petraeus – who literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency for the US Army, not to mention his stellar education at West Point, Princeton, and the battlefields of Iraq. So perhaps there is a better question: How are we doing in America?

What happened to men like Senator Arthur Vandenburg (R-MI) or Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA)? Both were respected men within their own parties; but both supported the President of a different political party and, more importantly, the country, when it mattered most. Vandenberg is famous for saying “Politics should stop at the water’s edge” while Scoop Jackson is known likewise for remarking “In matters of national security, the best politics is no politics.”

Our noble effort in Iraq is not exactly popular these days, though it is heartening to see that the American people do trust General Petraeus. While the war is difficult, we are fighting it effectively, and we must not lose a shooting war overseas in a war of words here at home. Unfortunately, because so many refuse to ask ‘how we are doing’ or truly support our troops, we risk doing poorly. Perhaps this kind of self-fulfilling prophecy is intended, but I hope not. Too many somehow associate Americans’ dissatisfaction regarding the current conflict with a population resisting the imperative to fight for others’ freedom and our own security. But we as Americans do not dislike fighting wars. We dislike losing wars.

And lose this war we will if certain political and media figures do not start acting like the Americans that they are. Success on the ground only can mean so much when persons of importance are blind to its existence, much less its significance.

Subscribe to the Stanford Review