This morning on CNN, Senator Joseph Lieberman asserted that, if the US were to withdraw from Iraq, "Iran and Al Qaeda win." Finally someone willing to stop hinting about dire consequences, and instead give voice to the real problem for the United States in Iraq: the willingness to admit defeat.
Lieberman, of course, expected that to be the final word on America's Iraq policy. It's not.
Losing here, winning there
For sake of argument, let's agree with Lieberman. We leave, and Iran and Al Qaeda "win." (That's not necessarily true, especially for Al Qaeda, but let's not get off track.) By implication, the United States loses. But what did we lose?
One of the reasons I started this blog is point out, whenever necessary, the importance of separating the different levels of strategy. Grand strategic, theater, operational, tactical, and technical levels are very different. Success at one level does not necessarily bring success at all the others.
Just as importantly for the iraq question, failure at one does not trigger failure at the others. If the United States were to lose one part of its theater strategy for the Middle East, it does not portend a cataclysm for the United States in that region, or for the most recently added priority in American grand strategy, counterterrorism.
The United states may have to contain the consequences of occupation and withdrawal, but there are several outcomes that may be eminently tolerable for the United States. The Iraqi factions are likely to remain focused on each other, not the United States. Iran may gain power and influence within Iraq, but exactly how does this automatically translate into a catastrophic loss for the United States? Freed from the Iraq trap, the United States might be able to do more in the Middle East overall, instead of pouring more blood and treasure into a single country. Americans might live in less danger of terrorist attack, if the American occupation no longer inspires outrage against the United states.
Don't look for a scoreboard
It's hard for Americans to avoid conflating Iraq with the Middle East, and with US national security overall, in part because Americans hate to lose. It's the reason, for example, why military recruitment rates are lower than desired, but reenlistment rates are higher than many expected. American soldiers who have served in Iraq have faced a tough challenge. They feel responsible for the Iraqis who live in mortal danger. Therefore, they don't want to leave a job undone.
While America's allergy to losing might be a good thing for the teams playing the Super Bowl, it's a bad thing for US foreign policy. For the United States to remain a superpower, Americans have to be mature enough to accept defeat at one level of strategy, if it does not endanger American successes at the other levels of strategy. There are no military equivalents of Hail Mary passes or on-side kicks. War and diplomacy are not games with simple ways to measure winning and losing--something for which we should all be grateful.