Victory in war is tough to define. Hollywood's version of victory in World War II provides a finality that history lacks. Gen. MacArthur meets the Japanese emissary on the battleship Missouri, and the curtain falls. Except trouble brews in Korea, China's civil war continues, the Soviet Union imprisons Eastern Europe and the triumph of World War II -- dancing in Times Square on V-E Day -- slouches toward the Cold War and its thermonuclear brink.
A soldier and scholar like Gen. David Petraeus, commander of Multi-National Force-Iraq, knows history is never over, but judgments must be made. This week, I spoke with Petraeus in a half-hour interview that touched on numerous difficult subjects, including establishing the "Rule of Law" in Iraq and the Iraqi Army's "surge" in professional capabilities and numerical strength.
At one point, I suggested that the military-diplomatic "tandem" of Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker provides a model for improving "unified action." That's the dry, wonkish term for coordinating and employing every "tool of power" America possesses to achieve a strategic goal. Petraeus demurred on the compliment, but said: "I can just not imagine a better diplomatic wingman than Ambassador Ryan Crocker. ... We were determined to achieve unity of effort."
Petraeus said that began with their integrated campaign plan. In every governmental endeavor, but especially in an intricate, complex war, economic and political development programs must reinforce security and intelligence operations.
The question of achieving strategic goals in Iraq threaded the entire interview. At one point, I posed the question this way: In Iraq, are we at a moment of strategic change?
"We've been at moments of strategic change," Petraeus replied. "These are not light-switch moments ... what you have is more of a rheostat -- many, many rheostat moments -- where in small areas, local areas, districts and eventually provinces there is an ongoing transition and has been an ongoing transition for the Iraqi forces to step more into the lead and the coalition forces to step back and provide enablers."
Petraeus sketched a conditions-based approach to assessing a war of increments where victory only emerges over time. A "light switch" is Hollywood. Because it is complex, dynamic and multidimensional, "rheostat warfare" escapes television's appetite for soundbite analysis. Counter-terror, counterinsurgency and, for that matter, anti-crime campaigns are rheostat operations that take time to conduct and judge.
"It is incremental," Petraeus continued. "It is this exercise of pushing the stone up the hill, a Sisyphean endeavor at times where you do make two steps up and one step back. Sometimes you make one step up and two steps back ... (but over) the last year or so ... from the large, comprehensive offensive launched in June 2007 when we had all of the surge brigades on the ground ... since that time there has been a fairly steady degree of improvement."
I asked about another "strategic condition," one I believe central to any version of victory: Iraq emerging as a U.S. ally.
"That is certainly one of the objectives," Petraeus said. The United States would want an Iraq "taking resolute action against" al-Qaida in Iraq, Shia militias and "special groups" supported by Iran.
I asked, bluntly: "Do you have an idea of what victory would be in Iraq or the Global War on Terror?"
Petraeus said the campaign plan had "near-term objectives for summer 2008" and the security objectives have been met. If the Iraqi government passes "the provincial elections law, then it can be declared that they have met them (plan objectives) in the political line of operation ... ." Diplomatic and economic objectives are also being achieved.
"We have objectives for 2009 and an end state, as well," he said. He did not elaborate on goals for 2009 but said the end state in shorthand "is a country that is at peace with itself and its neighbors; a government representative of and responsive to its people; a productive member of the region and the global economy."
"But again," he warned, "we have considerable drill-downs that describe the objectives relative to the security line of operations, relative to the enemy ... relative to the Iraqi forces, the different types that are here."
I translate from the mil-speak: The smart and resilient enemy "always has a vote," and in Iraq's case what Iran does or does not do matters. "Rheostat victory" requires a United States willing to act with all "the tools of power" to back its new ally, Iraq.