11/08/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Victory in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Senator McCain claims that the U.S. is "winning" in Iraq and that a surge will lead to victory in Afghanistan. This, despite the fact the General Petraeus keeps stressing that the U.S. gains are "fragile," and that Brigadier Carleton-Smith, former commander of the British forces in Afghanistan, recently observed that a military victory in Afghanistan is impossible and the U.S. and its allies must find a way to negotiate some kind of a mutually beneficial deal with the Taliban. Meanwhile, the Taliban are gaining ground while the corrupt government propped up by the U.S. is becoming more deeply involved in the opiate trade.

McCain never comes clean and explains that he has vastly watered down what he considers a victory. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynahan is widely credited with the phrase "defining deviancy down." He showed that when major American cities were awash in violent crime, the police were able to make great strides by ceasing to consider various crimes to be, well, crimes, and then dropping those numbers from their statistics. McCain is now trying to pull the same trick.

Once upon a time, victory was defined by the Bush Administration--and by Senator McCain-- as the establishment of a democratic state in Iraq and in Afghanistan, not merely because we were out to help the people of these nations gain liberty and the blessings of our kind of political system, but also because neocons maintained that only democracies make reliable partners in peace. The U.S., we were told, needs these nations to become democracies for our security. Onward and forward with regime change.

Now, victory is defined as two stable countries, able to defend themselves and to prevent their land from being used a base for terrorists. I am not belittling this goal. But, even after any notion of genuine democratization has been dropped like so much extra baggage, this goal is still a rather tall one, likely to be defined down further. It reminds me of one of my students, who came to class wearing a medal he won for coming in second in a race that had only two paticipants.

One may say, wait a moment; did not these nations have elections? Sadly, elections are by themselves not democracy makers. Egypt, Syria, Russia, and China all conduct regular elections. Democracies require a free press; viable competing political parties; and a civil society in which future leaders can gain political experience, rather than be hand picked by the established government or the occupying power. Very few of the elementary components of democracy are available in Afghanistan, and Iraq is not fairing much better. Indeed, there is a little doubt that if these nations developed strong authoritarian leaders-- local Putins-- the populations would embrace them in a jiffy, especially if they could put an end to the sectarian violence and the waves of crime, and provide basic services, starting with electricity in their homes.

In short, anyway you look at it, the claims of victory in Iraq and Afghanistan are shallow and hollow, if not outright deceptive.

Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international relations at the George Washington University and the author of Security First (Yale 2007). To contact him, write