After Vice President Joe Biden visited Baghdad for the Fourth of July weekend, he claimed that Americans would come to see Obama's Iraq policy as a success. "I think America wins. I sound corny, but I think America gets credit here in the region. And I think everybody gets credit, from George Bush to [Obama]."
Cue howls of outrage from the right that Biden would dare to take any of the acclaim for Bush's surge policy. Didn't the vice president once suggest that Iraq should be carved in three, along ethnic lines? But critics are missing a bigger point. No president will get much credit for the Iraq War. Not Bush. Not Obama.
How can we be so sure? Iraq is a nation-building mission where we try to stabilize a foreign country. The United States has launched dozens of nation-building missions in its history, from colonialism in the Philippines (1898-1946) to peacekeeping in Kosovo (1999+).
Strikingly, Americans saw virtually every single operation as a failure. In 1908, the Democratic Party platform called the occupation of the Philippines "an inexcusable blunder which has involved us in enormous expense, brought us weakness instead of strength, and laid our nation open to the charge of abandoning a fundamental doctrine of self-government."
Smedley Darlington Butler, a Marine officer known as the "fighting Quaker," was involved in many U.S. interventions in Latin America in the early twentieth century. Butler spent his final years warning against the perils of nation-building: "I helped in the rape of half a dozen Central American republics."
Interventions like Vietnam (1965-73) and Somalia (1992-94) were so traumatic that they each caused their own national "syndrome," and led Americans to cry "never again." We even have a favorite metaphor for nation-building, and it hardly inspires confidence: "quagmire." In 1900, Mark Twain described the Philippines as "a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater." In January 2009, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert entitled one of his pieces: "The Afghan Quagmire," depicting a war that "long ago turned into a quagmire."
But aren't we succeeding in Iraq? Possibly, but it doesn't really matter. Why? Because the United States has succeeded at nation-building before. In Somalia, we saved 100,000 lives at a cost of 43 American dead. But only 25 percent of Americans thought the operation was successful, while 66 percent considered it a failure.
Meanwhile, in Kosovo, we stabilized the war-torn Balkans with zero American fatalities. But only 37 percent of Americans believed that the United States and its allies had made "progress in achieving the goals they started out with" in Kosovo.
The only occasions when Americans were positive about nation-building were the missions in Germany and Japan after World War II. What does this tell us? We set a very high bar for success. Before handing out the laurels of victory, we want the target country to become a stable and prosperous democracy. Germany and Japan passed the bar, but there is no chance of this happening with Iraq. The chronic complications of ethnic division, bombings, and corruption means that Iraq will never look like a stable democracy in American eyes.
So even when the violence decreased in Iraq after 2006, Americans didn't celebrate. Church bells didn't ring. Flags didn't adorn homes and store fronts. Instead, people stopped thinking about the Iraq War at all, as the conflict dropped off the media and public radar. And Americans remain skeptical about the overall value of the Iraq War. In September 2009, just 24 percent of the public considered the campaign to have been "worth the loss of American life and other costs of attacking Iraq" -- the lowest-ever figure for that question.
Few Americans will see Iraq as a success. They're more likely to agree with Biden's earlier comments: "I don't think the war was worth it in the sense that we paid a horrible price, not only in loss of life, the way the war was mishandled from the outset, but we took our eye off the ball."