Lost in Afghanistan?

By Carter, Stephen L. | Newsweek, July 11, 2011 | Go to article overview

Lost in Afghanistan?


Carter, Stephen L., Newsweek


Byline: Stephen L. Carter

Obama would rather not talk about victory. But there's no other way to assess a war.

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. …

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