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On Winning and Losing Wars


The campaign of presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain has already gotten tedious. In a campaign appearance the other day, he said in his characteristically sanctimonious way, I had the courage and the judgment to say I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war. It seems to me that Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.

We ought to be jaded enough by politics to know that when a candidate says hed rather lose the campaign than do X, Y, or Z, hes being anything but courageous. Nothing is more calculated to help one win the White House than to say hed rather be right than president. The last guy to say it and apparently mean it was Henry Clay in 1839.

The media focus on McCains remark has been on its harshness towards his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, who is more or less promising to remove most troops from Iraq within 16 months of his inauguration. Candidates for the presidency dont usually accuse each other of wanting to lose wars. Thats because candidates are usually careful to sound like they favor winning. In the American political creed, there is nothing worse than opposing the starting of a war (at least one started by a president who is of your own political party), opposing victory with honor once its started, or supporting an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of troops. Doing any of these things will most likely get your patriotism questioned. McCains faux pas was his bluntness.

The Obama supporters reaction, of course, was high dudgeon. Talk-show host Rachel Maddow said McCain was calling Obama a traitor. He does not want to lose the war, she said.

This is politics, and these are political statements. That means they are not intended actually to be scrutinized. They are only for political effect, that is, designed to advance the speakers own political interests.

Thats why youll see barely any examination of the words win and lose. But thats what its all about, isnt it? Should we win or lose in Iraq? Depends on what we mean.

Theres another word that needs scrutiny: we.

When a country goes to war (more precisely, invades and occupies another country), it sounds as though only one entity is acting. But there are really at least two groups involved: the government and the population it dominates. (Of course, the government and population can each be made up of many people with different and conflicting interests.)

So we dont go to war. A small group of policymakers takes the rest of us to war.

This consideration sheds light on the issue of winning and losing. It is conceivable that the population taken to war would have been better off if that had not happened and if the military operations were ceased at once. In that case a loss for the policymakers would in fact be a win for the people. And if the people have a better claim to being called the country than the policymaking clique do, then a swift end to the war would constitute a win for the country, however much it would constitute a defeat for the clique.

All of this applies to the Iraq invasion and occupation. The average American has not been served by the Bush policy. The deaths of thousands of Iraqis and Muslims at the hands of American military forces are not good for the American people. They simply make them potential victims for all those aggrieved people who wish to get even. That is the price of empire. Have we learned nothing from 9/11?

It is probably asking too much of presidential candidates to really talk straight. So the American people will have to vigilantly decipher what they are saying. Appeals to military victory and patriotism are attempts to cloud thinking. A real straight-talking presidential candidate who preferred being right to being president would have this slogan for his Iraq policy:

A loss for the clique is a win for the rest of us!

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.