Americans of a certain age will recall Douglas MacArthur's pithy aphorism: "There is no substitute for victory." The remark captures an essential element of our military tradition. When the United States goes to war, it fights to win, to force the enemy to do our will. To sacrifice our soldiers' lives for anything less -- as MacArthur charged was the case in Korea and later unambiguously became the case in Vietnam -- smacks of being somehow un-American.
But among the various official statements being issued to explain events in Iraq, any mention of military victory has become notable by its absence. Tacitly -- unnoticed even by the war's critics -- the Bush administration has all but given up any expectation of defeating the enemy with whom we are engaged.
In the early days of the insurgency, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez vowed to use "whatever combat power is necessary to win," displaying all the pugnacity of a George Patton or Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf. "That's what America expects of me," declared Sanchez in December 2003, "and that's what I'm going to accomplish." Senior commanders no longer make such bold promises. Nor do senior civilian officials in Washington.
Indeed, today the Bush administration's aim is not to win but to relieve itself of responsibility for waging a war that it began but cannot finish. Debate in national security circles focuses not on deploying war-winning technologies or fielding innovative tactics that might turn the tide, but on how we can extricate ourselves before our overstretched forces suffer irreparable damage.
Optimists are placing their hopes on a crash program to create a new Iraqi security force that just might permit us in a year or so to begin reducing the size of our garrison. Pessimists have their doubts. But virtually no one is predicting we will be even remotely close to crushing the insurgency. The decisive victory promised by the war's advocates back in March 2003 -- remember all the talk of "shock and awe"? -- has now slipped beyond our grasp.
Of course, following the heady assault on Baghdad, the conflict took an unexpected turn -- precisely as wars throughout history have tended to do. As a consequence, today a low-tech enemy force estimated at about 10,000 fighters has stymied the mightiest military establishment the world has ever seen. To be sure, the adversary cannot defeat us militarily. But neither can we defeat it. In short, U.S. troops today are no longer fighting to win, but simply to buy time: This has become the Bush administration's substitute for victory. Worse, in a war such as in Iraq, time is more likely to work in the other guy's favor.
Whether this reality has yet to fully sink in with the majority of the American people is unclear. No doubt President Bush hopes the citizenry will continue to snooze. Better to talk about Social Security reform and banning gay marriage than to call attention to the unhappy fact that we are spending several billion dollars per month and losing, on average, two soldiers per day -- not to prevail but simply to prolong the stalemate. Moreover, if the administration gets its way, we can expect that expenditure of blood and treasure to continue for many months, until there emerges an Iraqi government able to fend for itself or Iraq descends into chaos.
Pending the final judgment of President Bush's war, this much we can say for sure: Two years after the dash on Baghdad seemingly affirmed the invincibility of the U.S. armed forces, the actual limits of American power now lay exposed for all to see. Our adversaries, real and potential, are no doubt busy contemplating the implications of those limits.
So too must we. Our effort to do so should begin with the admission that the idea, promoted during the heady spring of 2003, that through the aggressive use of military power the United States might transform the Islamic world and cement U.S. global preeminence was a dangerous delusion. It remains a delusion today.