Recent polls indicate that more than half the country believes that American foreign policy is headed in the wrong direction. The continuing war in Iraq, as the central issue in evaluating this direction, therefore merits a critical look. What, if anything, went wrong in this war?
Waging a successful war requires a finite, measurable, and thus meaningful goal that suggests a course of action. American history provides ample evidence of the value of such goals, but the Vietnam War illustrates it best.
In Vietnam, the United States articulated a philosophical goal: to counteract and prevent the spread of communism. While noble, this sweeping agenda did not submit well to practical assessment. Attempts at measuring progress elicited responses at best unhelpful and incidental, at worst irrelevant and downright deceptive. Thus, the Vietnam War amounted to a never-ending struggle to make communism disappear.
To many, Vietnam seemed unwinnable precisely because no one knew what effort the immediate goal required, how to measure the progress, or when the war would actually end. Would it end with the sovereignty of South Vietnam? The collapse of communist North Vietnam? The eradication of communist sympathizers? The fall of communism worldwide? War, like other competitive situations, equates perception and reality. Consequently, people cannot win a war they see as unwinnable.
While most people expected little to change in future wars, others took the lesson of Vietnam to heart. During the Persian Gulf War, for instance, President George H. W. Bush defined an explicit objective for Operation Desert Storm: to expel the Iraqi forces from Kuwait. After only a 42-day battle, the allied forces accomplished exactly what Bush had promised. Everyone knew the goal, and everyone knew we would win.
Twelve years later, the U.S. again declared war against Iraq. This highlights the great failing of the first Gulf War— President Bush did enough to resolve the immediate crisis, but nothing to displace Saddam Hussein’s oppressive regime for the long term. In fact, at the end of the Gulf War, many critics complained that we had failed to do enough and that the allied forces should have pressed on toward Baghdad.
President George H. W. Bush fought the first Gulf War in the context of a limited, measurable goal but failed by making his mission too superficial—he fought the battle without fighting the war. By contrast, our current president seems earnest in repeating the mistakes of Vietnam by fighting a war with a noble goal, but failing to set finite goals for its battles. Today, as in Vietnam, no one really knows when the conflict will end, or how we will measure its completion.
History demonstrates that neither a measurable goal nor a grand strategy suffices to make a war successful. The only viable solution, then, lies in defining the final objective incrementally. Each battle constitutes a single, measurable goal. Through a progression of such calculated steps, we will succeed in winning both the battles and the war.
Andrew Olson is a freshman in Branford College.