WASHINGTON -- When late in the spring of 1940 people of southeastern England flocked across the Channel in their pleasure craft and fishing boats to evacuate soldiers trapped on Dunkirk beaches, euphoria swept Britain. So Prime Minister Winston Churchill sternly told the nation: "We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.''
Or by curfews, such as the one that cooled the furies that engulfed Iraq after the bombing last week of a Shiite shrine. Wars are not won simply by facing facts, but facing them is a necessary prerequisite.
Last week, in the latest iteration of a familiar speech (the enemy is "brutal,'' "we're on the offensive,'' "freedom is on the march'') that should be retired, the president said, "This is a moment of choosing for the Iraqi people.'' Meaning what? Who is to choose, and by what mechanism? Most Iraqis already "chose'' -- meaning prefer -- peace. But in 1917 there were only a few thousand Bolsheviks among 150 million Russians -- and the Bolsheviks succeeded in hijacking the country for seven decades.
After Iraqis voted in December for sectarian politics, an observer said Iraq had conducted not an election but a census. Now America's heroic ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, one of two indispensable men in Iraq, has warned the Iraqi political class that unless the defense and interior ministries are nonsectarian, meaning not run as instruments of the Shiites, the U.S. will have to reconsider its support for Iraq's military and police. But that threat is not credible: U.S. strategy in Iraq by now involves little more than making the Iraqi military and police competent. As the president said last week: "Our strategy in Iraq is as the Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down.''
Iraq's prime minister responded to Khalilzad's warning by accusing him of interfering in Iraq's "internal affairs.'' Think about that, and about the distinction drawn by the U.S. official in Iraq who, evidently looking on what he considers the bright side, told Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins, "This isn't a war. It's violent nation-building.''
Almost three years after the invasion, it is still not certain whether, or in what sense, Iraq is a nation. And after two elections and a referendum on the constitution, Iraq barely has a government. A defining attribute of a government is that it has a monopoly on the legitimate exercise of violence. That attribute is incompatible with the existence of private militias of the sort that maraud in Iraq.