Adrian Hamilton: When the very term 'victory' is meaningless

The circumstances may not be the same, but the lies are straight out of the politics of Vietnam

The Independent

Published: 01 December 2005

"Declare victory and get out", was the advice offered to the Americans as they were dragged down into the Vietnamese quagmire. They didn't and they lost.

President Bush was toying with the same thought when he spoke in Annapolis yesterday, and under the same pressures. The word "victory" was everywhere, peppering his speech and emblazoned on the wall behind him. "I will not settle for anything less than complete victory," he declared, before listing the steps Iraqis were taking to handle their own security.

He made it seem as if a US presence wouldn't be needed much longer. The circumstances may not be the same. But the obfuscations, the lies and, worst, the self-deceit are straight out of the politics of Vietnam. You declare that all is well, while your own commanders admit they are not. You pronounce that your only interest is in helping the citizens of the country you have invaded, while adopting tactics that make their lives more miserable. You insist that your only guiding light is the military situation, while making decisions that owe everything to domestic politics.

American withdrawal, the US President stated defiantly yesterday "will be driven by the conditions on the ground in Iraq and the judgement of our commanders, not by artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington".

This is just arrant nonsense. Of course American policy is going to be led by domestic considerations. There hasn't been a war fought in the last hundred years that wasn't so. What else was President Bush doing giving the speech in the first place but getting himself out of a hole at home? The simple truth about yesterday's address by the President was that it was given because he faces plummeting opinion polls and an increasingly restive Senate on the hill. The voters have withdrawn their trust and the politicians have sensed that the time has come to plan their own exit strategy from association with the President and his policy in Iraq.

The other truth about the speech is that it marks the first time that America has discussed openly the question of withdrawal, not just by the oblique method of saying the Iraqis are nearly ready to do without the US, but more directly by issuing a 35-page White House document detailing by what measures it will judge when the job is done.

As an analysis of conditions there, the document was abysmal but the very fact that the White House felt compelled to produce it, is important in its own terms. Just as Tony Blair felt the need to produce a dossier backing up his case for going to war, so President Bush has felt impelled to produce his own justification for his actions. And just as self-servingly. The problem of "declaring victory and withdrawing" from Iraq is that, unlike Vietnam, the very term "victory" (or defeat) is virtually meaningless in the circumstances.

"Victory", as the White House report defines it, is seen primarily in terms of Iraq "taking a lead in defeating terrorists" and becoming a country that, over the long term, is a "partner in the war on terrorism". The ultimate aim, as set out by President Bush yesterday, was that Iraq would become a "strong ally in the Middle East" and that "this will help the security of our nation".

Quite aside from the patronising tones in which these objectives are set (who is America to lay out the standards by which Iraq will be judged as if it were a headmaster setting down rules for his pupils?), they also represent America's security interest, not necessarily Iraq's.

Defining terrorism as the fundamental threat simply ignores the reality that, for most Iraqis, the problem is not insurgency (to use a word now banned by the Vice President, Dick Cheney) but lawlessness. With the presence of more than 160,000 American troops and the expenditure of more than £100bn, the ordinary Iraqi still has not the certainty of power, sewage or personal safety.

Listing the ways in which Iraqis are developing their own security forces takes no account of the extent to which these forces have become part of the factional struggle within Iraq, particularly between Sunnis and Shia. Talking of US troops as fighting a war against terror in Iraq on behalf of the world sidesteps the problem that the presence of foreign troops on Iraqi soil is as much a part of the problem as a solution to it. The White House document demonises the "terrorists" and suggests that many of them are foreign fighters who have come in for the battle. But that poses the question of whether these terrrorists would have the same "cause" or local support if there were no occupiers present.

A week ago, representatives of all Iraq's many political parties took the unprecedented step of calling for a timetable for US withdrawal from their country.

Of course, they don't want the foreign troops to go precipitously, leaving them to cope with a triumphant insurgency and possible chaos. But that their leaders felt the need to issue such a call only three weeks before the Iraqi elections is indicative enough of the mood there. Not so very far from the growing mood in Washington, indeed.

Plodding on as if nothing had gone wrong and nothing needed changing is becoming less and less a viable option in Iraq. To pretend that it is the only one, as President Bush did is just wilful stupidity. But then he knows that, otherwise he wouldn't have made the speech at all.