The answer, according to Andrew Bacevich in a new LA Times op-ed, is a clear “No.” He writes:
Confusing capability with utility, the United States knows how to start wars but has seemingly forgotten how to conclude them. Yet concluding war on favorable terms — a concept formerly known as victory — is the object of the exercise. For the United States, victory has become a lost art.
While it’s impossible to argue with the facts — Fallujah, for example, has been captured by forces connected to al-Qa’ida, an organization that didn’t exist in Iraq until after our invasion — the good colonel is wrong in his conclusion that we lost a war in Iraq. The war in Iraq was handily won in a three-week campaign ending with the capture of Baghdad in April 2003. What happened next, and what we lost, was the occupation.
We shouldn’t feel too badly about this. Since the end of WW II, successful occupations are few indeed. The only one that springs to mind is the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and that’s a chapter still being written. The Soviet Union, with force and brutality at its disposal that we could only dream about in Iraq, failed to hold Eastern Europe, for example.
The problem with using the war metaphor where it doesn’t apply shows up in Bachevich’s recommendations, in which he wants to conduct war, just do it in a smarter way:
Take force off the metaphorical table to which policymakers regularly refer. Rather than categorizing violence as a preferred option, revive the tradition of treating it as a last resort. Then get serious about evaluating the potential for employing alternative forms of power, chiefly economic and cultural, to advance American interests.
As an alternative, how about using American power to further American interests here at home? I’m thinking of things like our expensive but statistically mediocre health care system, fading economic prospects for the middle class, ballooning (and profitable) population in privately run prisons, crushing student debt, and exploding pension obligations in many of our states and municipalities?
For more on the difficulty of holding on to conquered populations in this day and age, I recommend Martin van Creveld’s The Changing Face of War (Presidio, 2006).