Historically victory in foreign war has always meant hegemony: You win, you take over. ~Shelby Steele
Unless world history only extends from 1799 to 1945, this is a remarkably inaccurate statement. If he is speaking strictly of American wars, this is once again not really true. For much of history, and especially before the modern rise of insurgencies and guerrilla warfare, victory entailed defeating the enemy’s armies in the field, seizing the objectives of the war (which did not, until the modern period, normally even theoretically include the enemy’s capital) and extracting concessions from the defeated party. It did not necessarily require the occupation of the enemy’s territory, much less the ability to dictate terms about how the enemy governed his own domain. Only in uncivilised, total warfare or wars of conquest and empire does this definition of victory apply. To think of war in this way is to think of it in WWII-centric terms, which is typical of a lot of Americans, for whom this war is now the standard and the archetype of all other wars (hey, they watch the History Channel–they know it is!), is to misunderstand every other kind of war.
Take a couple famous examples across history of where this definition does not apply. For instance, Heraclius’ war against Persia–which was a defensive war that he won through a large counteroffensive thrust into the heartland of the Persian empire–was concluded not by the establishment of Roman/Byzantine hegemony over the Persians, but by decisively defeating the Persians in the field, resulting in the overthrow of the Persian ruler. The war was soon brought to an end by the new Persian government, which was favourable to the Byzantines but was not under their control.
A modern example might seem less strange. Victory over Germany and its allies in WWI was not total, but was the result of a negotiated settlement. There was no viable way to impose hegemony on the Reich, and while there were significant changes of territory there was no question of dictating what kind of regime the Germans or any of the Habsburg peoples would have.
The trouble with defining victory in Iraq does not come from muddle-headed relativism or our fears of “international responsibility” (because victory is not always hegemonic, it does not have to be colonialist, either), but from the nature of the war itself. This war does not allow for “complete military victory” without using the means of total war, which, as we all understand, involve killing large numbers of innocent people. (This is why total war is barbaric, and why people who think of war primarily in terms of total war are so frustrated with the Iraq war, because it does not allow them to use the only template for warfighting they know.)
Many modern insurgencies have been rebellions against imperial rulers or rebellions against a central government in one of these newly independent former colonies. Victory for the old imperial ruler, like that for the later central governments, was the suppression of the insurgency and the restoration of a degree of effective control over the whole territory. Reestablishing the monopoly of force was usually the goal and the standard by which military victory might be said to have been achieved. In settling insurgencies successfully, there has often been a political settlement that tries to alleviate or address at least some of the causes of the rebellion, or that at least makes some deals with the local, native authorities in exchange for their securing the obedience of their fellows–otherwise, it would start all over again. These deals were acceptable because the imperial power or central government probably wasn’t going anywhere. When the empires failed to hold on to their possessions, as they continually failed to do in the 20th century, it was partly because there was a sense that it was now possible to make them leave and that there was no longer any need to accept the deals they offered. There was always the hope of a better deal after independence.
As occupiers who are merely passing through, and who have made it clear that we do not intend to stay forever, any deal we make is unreliable and obviously open to later revision. Having gone to great lengths to endorse our puppet government as legitimate and independent, we are in the absurd situation where our puppets do not accept their role as puppets but believe, as we have been encouraging them to believe, that they are the sovereign government of Iraq. The one intermediary mechanism we might have to attempt to control Iraq was the one we handed over to people of less than certain loyalties. Because we are merely passing through (or so we tell everyone), anyone who works with us always has his eye on the exits, because he thinks he may be able to make a better arrangement for himself by working against us now and making alliances with the people who will probably still be there in 10 or 20 years. This is not an accusation; they would be fools to do otherwise.
We are invaders and occupiers, but we have none of the leverage of a real conqueror who imposes a settlement. (Not that we should want to be conquerors, either.) Full-on imperialism would have also been a disaster, but it would have taken a different shape (as all of Iraq would probably have risen in resistance, rather than different parts of the population at different times). Our half-a-loaf imperialism combines the evils and consequences of aggression and domination with those of the absurd weakness of “nation-building” projects around the globe. We manage to inspire the hate a subject people has towards a master and combine it with all of the idiocy of a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Africa. That is why there can be no agreement about what constitutes victory and why there can be no “complete military victory”–the government conceded long ago that there will be no military solution, which means that the government long ago committed to the success of a U.N. “nation-building” and peacekeeping model without having first brought an end to the war.
No one speaks of how KFOR in Kosovo will one day achieve “victory,” because victory is not the goal (a cynic would say that enabling Albanian terrorism has been the goal of NATO and KFOR from the beginning); such operations in the Balkans work under the illusion that some kind of “victory” has been achieved, when all that has happened is that the conflict that “we” have supposedly brought to an end has simply gone into hibernation. It will reawaken when we depart. Even the appearance of victory can sometimes be misleading if we believe that it represents some fundamental political change in the country, when it has only briefly damped down the conflagration.
Perhaps the most damning thing that can be said about the hegemonists, after they have been condemned for their injustice, is that they do not even understand how to expand hegemony. They want pliant, useful foreign governments to serve as the supports for that hegemony, preferring this kind of indirect rule to the costs of formal and direct rule, but they seem not to understand that there is no longer (if there ever was) any incentive for the peoples of other nations to abide by this arrangement. Our presence in Iraq is less than permanent but of long enough duration that we have inherited all of the evils of occupation with none of the advantages of permanent dominion. (Not, I hasten to add, that permanent dominion would be either desirable or justifiable.) Direct rule and full hegemony would not have brought meaningful victory, but would have precipitated a different sort of war against us. The only victory that we were ever going to be able to accomplish was against the formal regime of Saddam Hussein. This the armed forces achieved with admirable speed and success. Any hope of a definable victory after that was, it seems to me, an illusion.