Define 'Victory'

The American people want the same thing in Iraq that they wanted in Korea and Vietnam: Win and get out.

"To achieve victory over our enemies, we are pursuing a comprehensive strategy in Iraq," President Bush said at the United States Naval Academy on November 30. Behind the president, the television backdrop bore the repeated phrase "Plan for Victory." The White House released a National Security Council document titled "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq."

The president's not-so-subtle message: Victory lies ahead. The New York Times did a little sleuthing and found that the speech reflected the views of Duke University political scientist Peter Feaver, who is now a special adviser to the National Security Council. The Times reports that Feaver, an expert on civilian-military relations, studied the polls on the Iraq war and concluded, "Americans would support a war with mounting casualties on one condition: that they believed it would ultimately succeed." According to the co-author of that Duke research, Christopher Gelpi, the document released by the White House last week "is clearly targeted at American public opinion."

Writing in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Ohio State University political science professor John Mueller criticizes Feaver's contention that "support for war is determined by the prospects for success rather than casualties." Mueller argues that few Americans who are disaffected by the war are likely to change their minds That certainly didn't happen during the wars in Korea and Vietnam. During those conflicts, there was very little good news, and over time, the prospects for "victory" looked more and more remote.

Mueller finds that support for the war in Iraq has eroded much more quickly than did support for the Korean War or the Vietnam War. The view that the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq became a majority attitude early this year, when American combat deaths had climbed to about 1,500. In Vietnam, opposition to the war reached a majority only after the 1968 Tet offensive, when U.S. losses totaled more than 20,000. That was when CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite returned from Vietnam and told Americans that, in his opinion, the war had become a stalemate: The United States could not win.

In Iraq, the United States won a quick victory with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. ("Mission Accomplished," the Bush White House proclaimed.) But that victory quickly turned sour as American forces got bogged down and as casualties mounted.

The American people want the same thing in Iraq that they wanted in Korea and Vietnam: Win and get out. That is precisely what the United States did in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. This time, the public has begun to doubt that real victory is achievable.

The evidence comes from a Gallup poll taken for USA Today and CNN on the night of the president's Annapolis speech. Asked, "Does President Bush have a plan that will achieve victory in Iraq?" 55 percent of respondents said "no," and only 41 percent said "yes." What would victory mean, exactly? Bush said that Iraqi forces must be capable of taking responsibility for their country's security. Do Americans believe it's likely in the next few years that Iraqi forces will be able to ensure security without assistance from the United States? Again, the answer was "no," 54 percent to 44 percent.

Bush also said, "We will not permit Al Qaeda to turn Iraq into what Afghanistan was under the Taliban, a safe haven for terrorism and a launching pad for attacks on America." Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., agrees that must not be allowed. But without a solid plan, she messaged her supporters, "Iraq could become what it was not before the war: a haven for radical Islamist terrorists determined to attack America, our allies, and our interests."

Do Americans think that can be prevented? No. By nearly 2-to-1 in the Gallup poll (63 percent to 33 percent), respondents said it is unlikely that, in the next few years, Iraq will be able to prevent terrorists from using its territory as a base of operations for planning attacks against the United States. So, Americans are voicing an astonishing level of pessimism. They simply do not believe that, in the end, the Iraq intervention will turn out to be a success.

Bush said, "Most Americans want two things in Iraq. They want to see our troops win. And they want to see our troops come home as soon as possible." He added, "Those are my goals as well." In fact, both the White House and its critics agree that the United States has to win and get out. But the two sides reverse the order of those priorities.

Many Democrats argue that in order to win, the United States must withdraw. In their view, the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq creates a target for the insurgents. As Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., put it, "In Iraq, you have an insurgency. The minute we leave there, it's reduced."

Bush argues that in order to withdraw, the United States first has to win. "Pulling our troops out before they've achieved their purpose is not a plan for victory," he said in Annapolis. We can't leave until we've won, he argues. But since the president sees victory ahead, he can encourage the public to begin to think about withdrawal. It sounds like a version of the solution to the Vietnam War that then-Sen. George Aiken, R-Vt., recommended to President Johnson in 1966: "Declare victory and go home."