How an Empire Defines Victory

Seeing the end of the Gadhafi regime has somehow vindicated the war on Libya in many Americans’ minds, including some previously on the fence. This is a usual pattern: The U.S. goes to war, always with some lofty goal advertised, and the euphoria kicks in as soon as the regime is defeated.

It happened throughout the 1990s. The Gulf War, Somalia, and Kosovo all present examples of the American empire claiming mighty victory even as the problems in each region that were cited as reasons to go to war — a brutal tyranny, starvation and warlordism, and ethnic violence — persisted long after the U.S. “won” these wars.

It happened with the fall of the Taliban in October 2001. The Bush administration declared victory, the evil state was destroyed (or so we were told), and videos of little girls flying kites, signifying the defeat of fundamentalist theocracy in Afghanistan, saturated the press.

Yet here we are, 10 years later, and the U.S. is still fighting the Taliban. Somewhere along the way it was forgotten that the war wasn’t simply supposed to achieve the limited victory of October 2001 — it was supposed to destroy the safe havens for “terror,” liberalize the nation, and neutralize the threat to America by attacking the root cause. None of this happened, not in 2001, 2002, or any year since. Do Americans, most of whom now want to leave Afghanistan, remember how they felt about the great triumph 10 years ago? Apparently, the lessons haven’t completely set in.

It happened again in Iraq. The U.S. toppled Saddam’s regime in an impressive couple of days. Saddam’s statue fell. The Ba’athists were done for. Somehow it was considered a noteworthy achievement for the world’s hegemon, dropping thousands of bombs and spending billions of dollars, to be able to defeat a third-world state with a military one-hundredth the size of the hegemon’s own.

On May 1, 2003, Bush stood upon the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared: “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” He also reminded Americans of the victory in Afghanistan: “In the battle of Afghanistan, we destroyed the Taliban, many terrorists, and the camps where they trained.” He conceded that there was a lot of work left unfinished in both countries.

Bush was later mocked for having prematurely walked about like a peacock atop the aircraft carrier, which sported a banner that read “Mission Accomplished.” But the truth is, he was hardly out of step with the national political culture. Americans were very quick to champion America’s premature triumph. Even those who were a bit more cautious about the initial military conquest soon enough declared victory once the January 2005 elections took place, even in some cases admitting they might have been wrong to oppose the war.

In Iraq, the major rationale behind the war seemed to shift, from stopping a threat of WMDs to democratizing the country. In 2003, America celebrated for simply having destroyed a virtually defenseless government. Having found no WMDs, the U.S. moved the goalposts. By 2005, the emphasis was on the democratization effort.

Looking back, we can look at what that war was sold on, beyond the superficial: It was to be a quest to destroy a wicked regime, stop a threat of WMDs, neutralize an ally of Osama bin Laden, democratize Iraq and then the entire region, and make Americans safe as a result. None of these things happened beyond the overthrowing of the regime. There was no WMD threat. Saddam was not an ally of bin Laden. Iraq is not a “free country” now — particularly for Sunnis, Christians, women, and other minorities. And Americans are not the least bit safer or freer.

In May 2005, news came out indicating that even U.S. policy leaders were not as dense about defining victory as the War Party seemed in its public pronouncements. Even in October 2003, while much of the nation was still naively triumphant about Iraq, Rumsfeld had said in a secret memo:

Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?

Yet American hawks continued to claim victory anywhere they could find it. In 2007, they touted the Iraq surge as a success after redefining the mission in terms of reducing the violence to where it was before the outbreak of full-blown civil war in Iraq.

We saw something akin to this once again with the death of bin Laden. The national ecstasy was short-lived but very real. This was a different circumstance than usual, as it was not a state overthrown but a man killed, and his defeat did not come suddenly early in a war, thus to be prematurely celebrated, but rather arrived in an anti-climactic way, nine years after his head was in the crosshairs.

Nevertheless, the true purpose of killing him, we were told, was to stop the terrorist threat. Yet the war on terror has not ended. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made sure we realized that the day after bin Laden’s reported death, telling us that the al-Qaeda threat might even be worse.

This was particularly frustrating for those who at least wanted to see talk of the “war on terrorism” subside, although Obama promised that that would happen as early as August 2009. Then, once again, he declared the end of the “war on terror” in May 2010. And, we should remember, the Bush administration proclaimed the end of the “global war on terrorism” way back in the summer of 2005.

But the death of bin Laden was no reason for the war on terror — whatever we call it — to actually end, we’ve been constantly reassured. Still, it was celebrated as a watershed as a country desperate to find something — anything — to show that the war was being won.

Once again in Libya, we see the euphoria of victory, just in time to coincide with the 10th anniversary of 9/11. But has everyone forgotten the supposed point of this war? It was to stop a massacre in Benghazi, which was a rather dubious prospect in the first place. The deeper goal was supposedly to secure freedom in Libya, not just to replace one tyrannical state with another. But the rebels have been implicated in atrocities and have some disturbing ties to unsavory characters. We’ll see what the result of regime change is, but it’s clearly too early to cheer it on.

The U.S. has overthrown plenty of regimes — dozens, if you count both covert and overt missions. In almost every instance, the result has been not much better than what was there before, and the long-term consequence has been to enlarge America’s supply of enemies and deplete the U.S. of blood, treasure, and freedom.

Yet every time the U.S. “wins” a war, we opponents of militarism are supposed to eat humble pie. It is as though our argument had been “The U.S. is incapable of overthrowing this government” rather than “Waging war to achieve this objective is immoral and wrongheaded.”

When all you have is an empire, destroying small regimes is perhaps the best you can consistently claim as success. We are now into the second decade of the war on terrorism, and so we must ask: How will the U.S. define victory for this broader crusade? When will this mission be accomplished?

Unfortunately, the answer is that this greater war can never be won. Terrorism can never be vanquished. Even narrowly defined, anti-U.S. terror attacks cannot be stamped out by the very policies that encourage them — wars, occupations, and belligerence. If we want the next decade to be more promising than the last, we need to stop seeing victory in the mere destruction of foreign regimes. We need to stop celebrating brute force and killing as ends in themselves. If the goal is humanitarianism and peace, then the only genuine victory to be found is in a war that isn’t waged.

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Author: Anthony Gregory

Anthony Gregory is a former research fellow at the Independent Institute.