Victory's tipping point

Posted: Dec 17, 2005 12:05 AM

Victory is the new Clintonian "is" word. As in, it depends on what your definition of "victory" is.

Does victory in Iraq mean when every single insurgent is dead? Wait, no, we don't say "insurgent" anymore. The new preferred 'n' improved words are "Saddamist" and "rejectionist." So . when they're all dead?

Or when every single adult Iraqi is a registered voter and participant in the democratic process? When Iraqi security forces have total control over every town and byway? Or does victory mean when the U.S. can claim to have kept her word to the Iraqi people?

So go the questions in the wake of President George W. Bush's recent speeches - four in two weeks - about our role in Iraq. Now that Iraq's historic elections have passed, and were successful by any measure, are we there yet?

Reading Bush's mind is busy work. With stubborn consistency, he has stuck by his guns - and yes, stayed the course - on when the U.S. will pull out of Iraq.

"As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," he says.

"We will not leave until victory has been achieved," he says.

But what does that mean?

Given the flexibility implicit in such statements, it's hard to know what he intends. Or whether we can mark our calendars with indelible ink.

The truest answer probably is the one we don't care to hear. Bush doesn't know when we're going to leave Iraq, and he doesn't know when victory will be achieved - or even, precisely, what it is. Because, among other reasons, how could he?

There won't be a white-flag moment. There is no endpoint in a war against an idea. Most likely victory will be a feeling, a tipping point where enough rights outnumber wrongs.

Victory, most likely, will "feel" like this: He came, he conquered, he wants to leave the lights on when he calls it a day.

He wants no Iraqi to say, "America screwed us."

That time will come when, as Bush has indicated, Iraq is constitutionally organized and physically secure enough to manage its own fate. This past week's election is a significant step toward the first part of that goal.

What Bush doesn't say, but which is surely another part of the tipping point, is we'll leave when the U.S. can do so honorably. His own father abandoned the Iraqi people following the Gulf War, leaving them to face Saddam's shredders and rape factories. It's clear that Bush II doesn't intend to repeat that act of aborted trust.

It is no small matter, moreover, to have envisioned oneself the agent of freedom in an oppressed region. Someone along the way told George W. Bush that he could do anything, and he believed it.

Tempering such grandiosity with self-restraint is the trick, of course, and pride is the man behind the curtain. How does Bush declare victory when he declared it two years ago on the deck of an aircraft carrier? How does he declare victory when Howard Dean and Democrats keep insisting the war is "unwinnable"? How does he declare victory when formerly hawkish Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa) - a decorated war veteran - insists we leave now?

Staying the course is no one's easy road, and Bush is his own worst enemy some days. He seems tired of his own slogans and platitudes. We won't cut and run. We'll stand down when they stand up. Shift to the left, shift to the right, stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight.

In one of his speeches, Bush seemed to lose interest in his own text and didn't bother to complete a sentence about the Iraqi elections. Weary-looking and gray, he has aged dramatically in five years. And why wouldn't he?

Few have had to field as many catastrophes as this president - the 9/11 attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Hurricane Katrina - all while being second-guessed, accused of being a liar, and his every move critiqued by armchair generals.

As the tipping point goes, Bush may be closer than we think. Saddam is on trial, a democratically elected government is in place; the Iraqi people seem ready to tackle their own future.

If it looks like victory, maybe it is.