Obama, Iraq and the use of the 'V' word
WASHINGTON: President Obama's speech announcing the end of combat operations in Iraq did contain the "V" word. Towards the end of his Oval Office address he noted, "in an age without surrender ceremonies, we must earn victory through the success of our partners and the strength of our own nation".
This sentence followed one in which he noted 1.5m American troops had served in Iraq, experiencing the darkness of war, and had "helped the Iraqi people seek the light of peace". So the president suggested that the success of Iraq's democratic transformation could provide victory in the long term.
When in 2008, the strategy pursued by General David Petraeus had already brought about a dramatic downturn in violence, I well remember officers at the headquarters in Baghdad telling me that their commander had "banned the V word". Indeed I heard Gen Petraeus himself talk about "pushing the champagne to the back of the fridge".
So it was curious last night to hear President Obama - formerly such a vociferous opponent of the war, and indeed of Gen Petraeus's surge strategy that finally delivered results - speak of victory. Of course his speech writers could argue that he did not use it in a way that claimed it for US forces or that mimicked the awful mistake of whoever wrote the "Mission Accomplished" banner that hung behind President Bush in May 2003.
What the speech did however was to use the word "victory" in a speech marking the end of US combat operations in such a way that his people would hear it, but at the same time would allow the White House truthfully to say "we never declared victory".
This reminds me how the Bush Administration argued it never accused Iraq of being behind the 9/11 attacks, while making speeches that contained reference to Saddam's support of terror or the Axis of Evil. And indeed, Bush's White House could argue that the president never said the mission in Iraq had been accomplished, even if the banner behind him did. It's a familiar political technique, in other words, to do with the power of suggestion.
Even if a president uses carefully chosen phrases, those around him may go further. In an interview published today, for example, his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, talking about the positive effects of administration policies on Iraq, Iran and the Middle East peace process, said "victory begets victory, and success will be reinforcing".
It is true of course that as commander in chief, President Obama had to say positive things about the sacrifices made in Iraq. He had to leave his people feeling something good had come out of that violent maelstrom. In this sense his speech was genuinely statesmanlike in that it explicitly buried earlier partisan differences. Indeed, President Obama even managed to be generous about his predecessor, noting his commitment to America's armed forces and security.
The idea that the ultimate declaration of victory will depend upon the fortunes of Iraq's nascent democracy is an interesting one too. I'm not sure it would have been so alien to those who did take part in surrender ceremonies in any case. If, for example you'd asked Field Marshal Montgomery as he stepped from the tent on Luneburg Heath in 1945, having received a formal surrender, whether the real test of victory over Germany would be what kind of country it was in five or 10 years' time, I suspect he might well have agreed.
Today, in an era of non-state actors, insurgency, and asymmetric warfare the key difference is not in the declarations of victory. Indeed it might be argued that everybody now insists they've won - constantly - as part of information warfare.
However finely crafted the speech, even President Obama attempted that yesterday, by suggesting that the US had put the Iraqis on the path to victory. The real difference between today and 1945 is that nobody concedes defeat.