Sunday, August 21, 2005

Winning the Iraq War

How do you win a war? This is a serious question I've been pondering. I think the use of language or the rhetoric of the question is flawed. "Win" is defined as:

1. To achieve victory or finish first in a competition.

So we could rephrase the question substituting the definition above for the word "win":

How do you achieve victory or finish first in a competition in Iraq?

I don't think the Iraqi insurgents consider the presence of U.S. troops in their country a "competition". I don't think they are interested in "testing their skill or ability against a rival" (the definition of compete). I think the insurgents want the U.S. out of their country so they can take control again.

Normally when we use words like "winning" and "competing" we have a mental model of a sporting event like a soccer game or baseball game. In these tests of skills, both sides agree to follow a certain set of rules, there are referrees, and there is an outcome. Both sides accept the outcome or result and there is a clear winner and a clear loser. The matter is settled and the game is over.

The Iraqi insurgents, however, never agreed to "play a game". They never agreed to "test their ability against a rival". They are not participating according to time intervals like innings or 45-minute halves. They are not paying any attention to rules, referrees or outcomes. Especially outcomes. The Iraqi insurgents are not going to agree on the outcome; in other words, that they lost. No matter how the facts of the war appear to the U.S., it does not seem likely that Iraqi insurgents would forfeit, wave a white flag, resign, or admit defeat, regardless of the circumstances.

So when I hear Republicans saying things like "we are going to kick their butts in Iraq" or "we are winning this war", or "we're going to win this one and show them", these expressions sound like fans at a sporting event cheering for their team. In the case of Iraq, the fan is going to be disappointed because "the game" is not going to end.

The trouble is that the U.S. presence in Iraq is not a sporting event. It is not even clear that it is a war, since technically the U.S. has not declared war on Iraq. Most importantly, it is not clear that the Iraqi insurgents are interested or even paying attention to an outcome or result. It seems more likely that the Iraqi insurgents will continue fighting and lose their lives if required to get control over the country. They are not on any kind of time table. It seems they have infinite time and are willing to lose their lives for their cause.

I propose that our rhetoric is all wrong and that we as a nation have phrased the question very badly when we say "winning the Iraq war". We should take a step back, look at the big picture, and ask these questions:

(1) What does the U.S. want from Iraq?
(2) How can this be achieved?
(3) What are the benefits?
(4) What is the return on investment?

In reading the White House web site (, it appears there is some hope that the administration has shifted its focus away from the win/lose war rhetoric to the questions above. I hope this continues.