Iraq War Offers Lessons on Victory, Defeat

Americans must decide what the lessons of the Iraq war will be. Christopher Fettweis, assistant professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, offered that assessment in a recent essay discussing the consequences of defeat in war.

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JOHN YDSTIE, Host:

The Los Angeles Times published an opinion piece this week titled "Post Traumatic Iraq Syndrome." It's subtitle: "The War is lost. Americans should begin to deal with that means." The author is Christopher Fettweis. He's an assistant professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. But the views in the article are his own. He joins us from member station WRNI in Providence, Rhode Island. Welcome to the program, sir.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER FETTWEIS (Assistant Professor, U.S. Naval War College): Thank you for having me here, sir.

YDSTIE: First of all, what makes you so sure that the war is lost?

Mr. FETTWEISS: Well, I take no pleasure in this. But I looked back through history and noticed that it's very difficult for any democracy to sustain a war once its people has turned against it. And we see it - we saw it in 2006. We're likely to see it again in 2008 that politicians are going to be able to win elections on the basis of withdrawing or drawing down our troop levels. It doesn't appear to be that the United States is going to be able to sustain this war for much longer. I don't know of any example of a modern democracy that changed its mind once it had turned against the war.

YDSTIE: How do you define lost in this context? I mean, certainly, the US military could continue to fight. So what does losing in Iraq mean?

Mr. FETTWEISS: I think it's a great question. And that's an important point because I don't think it's particularly appropriate to actually use the terms winning and losing or think of it as if it were a cribbage match or a football game. The war is likely to be a lot more gray than we're comfortable with.

But in the final analysis, that doesn't matter because that's how people interpret war. And it's going to be difficult to avoid the impression that the United States has, in fact, lost this because we've set it up somehow for some reason that the only way we can win is if we leave Iraq with a functioning, flourishing Jeffersonian democracy where everyone's happy, and terrorism diminishes and everything is great in the Middle East. That's going to be tough to achieve.

YDSTIE: I believe you said in your op-ed piece that there is a danger that Iraq could turn out something like Lebanon or maybe pre-war Afghanistan where certainly al-Qaida flourished, and in the chaos of Iraq could an al-Qaida flourish there as well?

Mr. FETTWEIS: But when we look and think about disasters, we also often think back to Vietnam immediately, which was a great moral disaster. But it was basically strategically irrelevant. No bad string of dominoes followed the loss in Vietnam that we all feared. Iraq may be different - it's possible that it could - the region could descend into more violence. I don't think it's particularly likely but it is possible it could turn out to be greatest disaster we've ever seen in foreign policy.

YDSTIE: You suggested that Vietnam was a worse moral failure. Explain that.

Mr. FETTWEIS: There's a lot more bloodshed in Vietnam. Sixty thousand Americans, give or take, died and somewhere between one and two million Vietnamese. Seventy-five thousand people have died on both sides of the Iraq war. So the Vietnam War was a much greater moral debacle.

YDSTIE: What is the political blowback for this if, as you predict, the U.S. leaves this war and it's considered a loss?

Mr. FETTWEIS: As much as we like to see the underdog win, the Hooser story of the little school beating the big behemoth, it's really tough to take if you're on the side of the behemoth.

In ways, society and individuals deal with defeat lots of times is to explain it. We have to make sure we know why we were defeated and who is at fault in order to learn lessons from this and move on and assure ourselves that it won't ever happen again. And assure ourselves that it wasn't us that lost; it was these other people.

We have scapegoats either in the media, or on campuses, or the Iraqis themselves, or the generals or the neo-cons. There'll be fingers pointed in many different directions. But the central lesson of this war, in my view, should be not how it was fought but that it was fought at all was decisive.

YDSTIE: Christopher Fettweis teaches national security decision making at the U.S. Naval War College. He joined us from member station WRNI in Providence, Rhode Island. Thanks very much.

Mr. FETTWEIS: Thank you very much.

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