If the Iraq war is over, does Bush get the W?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

As the seventh anniversary of the war in Iraq approaches, an odd dissonance has emerged: Washington is fighting over who should get credit for winning it -- at a time when the country seems to have tuned out the conflict completely.

Iraq's parliamentary elections last Sunday, which the White House hailed as "historic" and a "milestone," and Newsweek's recent cover, featuring President George W. Bush on the USS Abraham Lincoln and a "Victory at Last?" headline, serve as the backdrop for the debate, though it started earlier. Last month, Vice President Biden declared that Iraq could be "one of the great achievements of this administration." Pete Wehner, a former Bush White House official, took Biden and President Obama to task a couple of weeks ago for opposing Bush's troop surge, which he called "one of the most impressive and important acts of political courage in our lifetime." And the New York Times's Tom Friedman is passing out kudos to Bush and Obama alike while saying it's all up to the Iraqis now -- everyone gets a trophy!

Yet, as Washington Post polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta pointed out to me, public interest in the war reached its low point this month, after peaking during Bush's troop surge in 2007, when the war was consistently rated as the most important problem facing the country, according to monthly Gallup polls. As of this month, by contrast, only 2 percent of Americans considered Iraq the top challenge, with unemployment (31 percent), the economy (24 percent), and health care (20) percent) all dominating our collective consciousness instead.

So, is it time to declare victory and start putting Iraq behind us? Not quite, says Dominic Tierney, the author of "Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics." In Iraq, victory won't become evident with a surrender document, a key battle or a symbolic moment, like an election, but through a series of "incremental gains," much like a war on poverty, said Tierney, a Swarthmore political scientist. "It would take years of Iraq as a stable ally in the Middle East before we can look back and say it was all worth it," he said.

Today's triumphalism could easily dissipate, Tierney fears, if U.S. casualties jump or violence rises as Iraq puts together a new government. But as the United States struggles with wars abroad and political gridlock at home, even temporary public indifference to Iraq may feel like a strange sort of victory.

-- Carlos Lozada

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