At an October 25 news conference, not long before the midterm elections, President Bush was asked a fairly simple question about Iraq: “Do you think we’re winning, and why?”

The reporter asking the question pointed out that the Iraq war had lasted nearly as long as World War II, at least for the US, and that October had been the deadliest month of the war in quite some time.

The President offered a fairly long answer that was not directly on point to the reporter’s query. Here’s an excerpt:

This is a war against extremists and radicals who kill innocent people to achieve political objectives. It has a multiple of fronts.

Afghanistan was a front in this war against the terrorists. Iraq is now the central front in the war against the terrorists. This war is more than just finding people and bringing them to justice; this war is an ideological conflict between a radical ideology that can’t stand freedom, and moderate, reasonable people that hope to live in a peaceful society.

Bush still very much links the war in Iraq to the wider war on terror, and to grand ideological struggles between liberalism and…well, those that espouse an “ideology of hate,” whatever that is.

Apparently unsatisfied, the reporter immediately followed up with this simple question: “Q Are we winning?

Bush, perhaps sensing the reporter’s need for a soundbite replied, “Absolutely, we’re winning.”

But, and this is important, the very next words out of his mouth were about the wider war:

Al Qaeda is on the run. As a matter of fact, the mastermind, or the people who they think is the mastermind of the September the 11th attacks is in our custody. We’ve now got a procedure for this person to go on trial, to be held for his account. Most of al Qaeda that planned the attacks on September the 11th have been brought to justice.

Extremists have now played their hand; the world can clearly see their ambitions. You know, when a Palestinian state began to show progress, extremists attacked Israel to stop the advance of a Palestinian state. They can’t stand democracies. Extremists and radicals want to undermine fragile democracy because it’s a defeat for their way of life, their ideology.

People now understand the stakes. We’re winning, and we will win, unless we leave before the job is done. And the crucial battle right now is Iraq.

Today’s Washington Post illustrates the fact that the media still wants to talk about Iraq, fairly exclusively. Apparently, they finally got the President to limit his answer as well:

As he searches for a new strategy for Iraq, Bush has now adopted the formula advanced by his top military adviser to describe the situation. “We’re not winning, we’re not losing,” Bush said in an interview with The Washington Post. The assessment was a striking reversal for a president who, days before the November elections, declared, “Absolutely, we’re winning.”

I was tempted to respond to this by pointing out that George W. Bush is a hypocrite — didn’t he win in 2004 by labeling John Kerry a flip flopper?

Or, I could criticize the television media for ignoring this story and focusing obsessively about some lost mountain climbers and beauty pageant contestants.

However, I decided to take the high road and look at the altogether American infatuation with winning and losing, which highlights quite a few important points about the conflict in Iraq.

Let me name a few:

1. For years, the Bush administration has recklessly called Iraq the “central front in the war on terror” even though it is not. That fact has made it politically difficult for the US to leave Iraq without achieving total victory over terrorists — even if the violence in Iraq has little to do with terrorism.

Iraq had essentially no ties to Al Qaeda before March 19, 2003, and even today the number of “foreign fighters” in Iraq is very small. A substantial part of Iraq’s violence is sectarian, as the factions fight for control of the country. The dominant Shia population wants to rule, especially after years of brutal oppression under Saddam Hussein, and the minority Sunni are terrified of what might happen to them under that same Shia rule.

While Al Qaeda trained a small number of 9/11-type elite terrorists in Afghanistan, the overwhelming majority of people trained in those camps were “merely” insurgents, who were never going to see action outside of Kashmir, Chechnya, etc. Sure, those elements are dangerous in the context of civil war, but they are Sunni and foreign (a large number are Saudi), which means they would likely get the hell out of Iraq if the US left and the Shia dominate Iraqi politics. Or, I suppose, they would be slaughtered by the Shia.

Iraq is analagous to Yugoslavia after the death of Josip Broz Tito. Tito and Saddam Hussein were able to keep their multi-ethnic states united, often by using brute force. Once they were gone, the country suffered tragically. The history of the 1990s illustrates that the world had much to say — and scholars now have much to offer — about similar situations, but the present course in Iraq really does not align with that history.

2. The administration’s goals for Iraq are pie-in-the-sky. What is the ideal point? I suppose someone in the Bush administration would say that they seek an Iraq at peace, led by a democratic government that protects the rights of minority populations (Sunni and Kurdish). This would make Iraq a model for the Middle East and a “good international citizen” all at the same time.

Does anyone believe this is possible within the foreseeable future? The US decapitated the Iraqi state, dismantled the armed forces, and failed to secure order in the immediate post-war period. That created an opportunity for thugs to try to grab what they could while the getting was good. Thus, the institutions have almost no real authority, the police and military have ethnic, rather than national, loyalties, and “Iraq” no longer really exists. The Kurds essentially want autonomy if not outright independence. The Shia and Sunni have nearly mutually exclusive goals — and too many people are willing to use violence to get those goals.

This is what civil war looks like and similar conflicts rage all over the world. Hoping for stable democracy to solidify in this context is outrageous — especially from the kinds of politicians who say that government cannot achieve far more limited goals inside the US.

3. The risks of “losing” are small for the US. The original justifications for attacking Iraq, however dubious they were at the time, are now completely irrelevant. There were no WMD and there is virtually no prospect that this disintegrating state is going to initiate a globally dangerous nuclear or biological program. Al Qaeda is a Sunni operation through-and-through and there is almost no chance the Iraq Sunni will emerge victorious AND then cut a deal with Al Qaeda to establish a terror safe haven.

If the foreign fighters and Sunni continue to fight together against a Shia majority, there is some risk that Saudi Arabia or some other Sunni state might enter the conflict, but their current leadership says they won’t.

Some time ago, these facts might have allowed the US an easier exit from Iraq. The US won the military victory against Iraq as it was known in 2002. They are “losing” the nation-building endeavor, which is a lot more difficult and has very little to do with American military power.

4. Conclusion: Both the media and the Bush administration are to blame for limiting American options. The media does a fairly good job of highlighting the day-to-day violence in Iraq, but this has created a growing sense of doom in the general population.

Indeed, this coverage assures that the Bush administration wants to increase American troops in Iraq rather than decrease their number. The situational frame is “winning” versus “losing” and George W. Bush does not want to leave office as a loser. Sure, he might only be able to assure prolonged stalemate, but the alternative will not be his fault. At this point, the inevitable withdrawal is almost surely going to have to come from a successor — or be pushed on Bush by a Democratic Congress.

A more clear-eyed assessment of American interests suggests that the US has few vital national interests at stake in conflict-ridden Iraq and everyone should greatly ratchet down the rhetoric. Both the administration and the media should play up the sectarian nature of the violence and note the very small foreign element.

“Good news,” a headline in tomorrow’s paper might declare, the Pentagon’s review of its pre-war goals in Iraq finds almost complete success. The Iraqi government is not a state sponsor of terrorism, it does not pursue weapons of mass destruction, and it is committed to establishing a more democratic order. While this latter objective will require the support of the US and the rest of the international community, it does not require the firepower of the American military machine.

US troops are the foreign fighters responsible for killing the largest number of innocent Iraqis. Until everyone realizes this, then American foreign policy toward Iraq will fail.

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