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Lost in Afghanistan? –A Commentary by Stephen L. Carter ’79

The following commentary was posted in Newsweek.com on June 26, 2011.

Lost in Afghanistan?
By Stephen L. Carter ’79

Did we win? The question came to mind after President Obama, in a prime-time address, announced a plan to draw down American forces from Afghanistan from 100,000 today to 90,000 at the end of the year and about 70,000 by the summer of 2012. He confirmed his earlier insistence that the combat mission will be completed by 2014. The president promised to bring the troops home, and he is carrying out that promise. But did we win? Are they coming home because they did the job? Or has the enormous sacrifice of blood and treasure been for naught?

The president spoke not of victory but of goals achieved and commitments fulfilled. That is the language of contemporary diplomacy and scholarship. Among sophisticates, the concept of winning wars seems so 1980s; perhaps even 1940s.

Many historians trace the reluctance to embrace the concept of victory to the Cold War, when the horror of mutually assured destruction meant that winning in the traditional sense was impossible. Thus the role of the military was re-imagined, encompassing, as Thomas C. Schelling memorably wrote in Arms and Influence, less victory than “the bargaining power that comes from its capacity to hurt.” Indeed, although the point is often forgotten, the Cold War was the heyday of a pragmatic vision of foreign policy. The dominant public intellectuals of the day—Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is one exemplar—proposed that American liberalism was about solving problems as they arose, not implementing grand theories. Such world-changing dreams belonged to a discredited “messianic” age. The experiences of Korea and Vietnam seemed to confirm this philosophy.

Except that, in the end, we did win the Cold War. And we have been winning ever since. The historian Paul Johnson has suggested that Americans are the only people on earth who, when a war begins, always expect to win; we so take the result for granted, says Johnson, that we do not even realize how unusual our expectation is. Indeed, with the exception of Somalia, to find anything like an American defeat one would have to go back to our swift withdrawal from Lebanon after the truck bombing of the Marine barracks in 1983. Other than that, we have won them all.

No doubt our success rate leads to a swagger we ourselves scarcely notice. Consider Matty, the disillusioned nuclear-weapons researcher in Don DeLillo’s brilliant novel Underworld. Matty not only rooted for the boorish Bobby Fischer in his 1972 world chess championship match with Boris Spassky but also “identified with the public tantrums, all the rude demands…the open show of bitterness when he lost.” Matty, in a sense, makes Johnson’s point. Like Bobby Fischer, we expect to win them all; like Fischer, when we don’t, we look for somebody to blame.

In short, whatever the fashionable language of the day, we Americans do not much like fighting merely to achieve commitments and goals. We like to win. There is a fair argument to be made that we won in Iraq—a proposition that might be admitted even by those of us who wonder whether it was worth the price. We toppled the regime with surprising ease (crushing a 400,000-man Army along the way), then dragged Saddam Hussein from his hole in the ground. We left in place a democracy that, although struggling, seems likely to survive.

In Afghanistan, we plainly won the first war—toppling the Taliban in mere weeks—and President Obama should not be reluctant to say so. But we have grown weary of the longer conflict to keep the Taliban from returning to power. If Obama truly believes the time has come for the fighting to stop, perhaps he should be guided by the example of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who famously proclaimed during World War II that there is no substitute for victory, then accepted a bitter stalemate in Korea. But he demanded a signed armistice first, and left a massive American force in place to guard the uneasy peace.

Carter, a novelist and professor of law at Yale University, is a NEWSWEEK/DAILY BEAST columnist.