Popular consensus has it that we are losing the war in Iraq. Robert Gates, the White House nominee to replace Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense, stated on Tuesday that the United States was categorically not winning in Iraq. "What we are now doing is not satisfactory," Gates said. Popular consensus also has it that we are losing the war in Afghanistan. "[B]ecause of the Bush administration's inattention and mismanagement," wrote The New York Times editorial board on Tuesday, "even the good war is going wrong."
America has not "won" a major "hot" war since World War II. The Gulf War cannot be considered a full-fledged victory; it returned the situation in the Middle East to the status quo. The aggressor in that war, Saddam Hussein, would remain in power for another dozen years. The Vietnam War was surely a devastating loss. The Korean War ended in stalemate; North Korea, the aggressor in that war, remains militant and dangerous 50 years later.
It has been six decades since we emerged fully victorious from a major "hot" war. This is because the very definition of war has changed. Each modern war is now more of a battle than a war. Tearing out the enemy's motivating ideology by the roots is no longer a nation-centric task. Nazism was located in Germany and Shintoism in Japan. We could defeat both countries and win the war. Fundamentalist Islam, however, spans the globe. Even if we disestablish fundamentalist Islam in Afghanistan and Iraq, we still have not won the war. Afghanistan and Iraq are the equivalents of Okinawa and Utah Beach. Super-national ideologies mean that war is not a local affair, but a global one.
So how do we win a global war? We won the Cold War by waiting out our communist opponents. We could lose the war in Vietnam and still win the broader Cold War. We could stalemate in Korea without losing the fight against communism. Communist ideology was bankrupt, and if we denied them resources (as we did by funding anti-communist forces around the globe and rolling back communism under President Reagan), we would be successful in the long run.
That strategy will not work with fundamentalist Islam. Fundamentalist Islam is not an ideology that will crumble from within. It demands total religious obeisance of its practitioners, regardless of material hardships incurred. And anything but total replacement of fundamentalist Islam by another, friendlier ideology is seen as a victory by the fundamentalists. The Gulf War was not merely a victory squandered; it was a defeat. Denying Iraq oil may have hurt Saddam Hussein, but failing to depose Hussein hurt Western credibility and emboldened Muslims the world over.