If there is one word the White House wants the American public to
associate with the war in Iraq, it is probably "victory." President
Bush said it 11 times Wednesday in his speech on rebuilding Iraq -
following victory's 15 mentions in his address on the training of
Iraqi forces last week.
From the administration's point of view, the benefits of this
rhetorical approach are obvious. As a theme, victory is positive,
even uplifting. It might serve to counter any public impression that
the US is stuck in an Iraqi morass.
But the Bush team's definition of what would constitute victory
in Iraq remains fuzzy, say critics. And in using such a powerful
word - especially in phrases such as "complete victory" - US
officials may have set themselves a dauntingly high goal. As the
president himself has said, the nature of the Iraqi conflict means
it won't end, as World War II did, with the finality of a signing
ceremony on the deck of a US battleship.
"Ending any war is hard," says Lee Feinstein, executive director
of the Task Force Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. "He'd
have been better off to say, 'We'll leave Iraq better than we found
The sudden prominence of victory as a central part of the
administration's discourse regarding Iraq probably isn't the result
of a speech writer's whim. Duke University political scientist Peter
Feaver has long insisted that the support of the American public for
any war depends crucially on whether they think it will succeed -
and Dr. Feaver recently joined the White House staff as a special
In fact, an electronic signature shows that Feaver created the
computer file for "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," posted
Nov. 30 on the White House website, according to The New York Times.
The core of the argument made by Feaver and his colleagues at
Duke is that polling shows US voters aren't affected by rising war
casualties if they expect the war in question to result in a US
"When the public thinks victory is not likely, even small
[casualty] costs will be highly corrosive," says a June 2005 paper
by Feaver and fellow Duke political scientists Christopher Gelpi and
Not all polling experts accept this conclusion. Even if the
thesis is correct, other critics say, the public needs more than
rhetoric to believe in eventual triumph.
The problem with Iraq isn't that the administration hasn't been
talking about victory enough, says Ivo Daalder, senior fellow in
foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. It's the
continued strength of the insurgency.
"If rhetoric doesn't match what's happening on the ground, then
the rhetoric will be discounted," says Mr. …