Between the Lines: Why We 'Lost' Iraq

I take a backseat to no one in believing victory in Iraq is essential to America’s national security. I would love to see Iraqis all get along. I would love to see Iraq become a free and independent state or states. I would love to see it become a model for self-government in the Muslim Middle East.

But more important to Americans is the utter defeat of al Qaeda and Iranian proxies there. That’s what constitutes victory for the United States.

However, that’s not the way President Bush defines victory. In fact, he’s never defined it, which is one of the reasons we can’t achieve it.

I believe I can discern the actual turning point in the Iraq war — the moment, the day, the hour it all started to go downhill for our mission. It is important for Americans to understand and acknowledge this turning point, or we will never learn from our mistake of historic proportions.

It happened in November 2004. Prior to that time, there was little question America was accomplishing its mission in Iraq. It was on the way to victory. It was destroying the enemy and transforming the country into a U.S. ally in the Middle East — one that likely would not tolerate al Qaeda activity or efforts at Iranian hegemony.

But what happened in November 2004 changed all that. It wasn’t a victory on the battlefield by al Qaeda. It wasn’t new tactics by Iranian-sponsored terrorists. It wasn’t a spontaneous uprising by America’s enemies. It wasn’t an outbreak of religious hostilities between Sunnis and Shiites. And it wasn’t any failure by U.S. troops. It was, first, a public relations disaster called Abu Ghraib.

Photos of prisoners being mocked and abused released to the world represented a major turning point in the war. It put the United States on the defensive. It compromised America’s high moral ground in the conflict. It suggested we weren’t "fighting fair." But the political response to this tempest in a teapot within the United States caused an even bigger setback for U.S. military forces.

That media coup for the enemy set off a chain of events that ultimately led the politicians in Washington to handcuff our troops, ensuring the quagmire that followed.

Abu Ghraib spelled the end of coercive interrogations. You can thank Sen. John McCain, now a presidential candidate, for that. He equated what we saw in those Abu Ghraib photos with "torture." He kept saying it over and over again. He prevailed on Congress and the president to change U.S. military procedures on interrogations that had been in place for decades.

The result? Now enemy captives know they don’t have to talk. They know exactly what U.S. interrogators will and won’t do to get information. They have no fear. And there is absolutely no longer any reason to provide information about the next enemy attack. There is absolutely no reason to reveal where the roadside bombs are. There is absolutely no reason to disclose who the traitors are within the Iraqi government, military and police forces.

What followed next is plain for anyone to see: U.S. and Iraqi casualties skyrocketed. No longer could we see the attacks that were coming. U.S. military forces were operating in the blind, without any valuable intelligence. And nothing has changed since.

When we stopped performing coercive interrogations, we no longer had the ability to prevent attacks before they happened. We no longer had the human intelligence we had prior to November 2004. What we get from prisoners now is nothing, nada, zilch, zip … bupkiss.

They all know they can hold out. U.S. interrogators cannot even speak harshly to these enemy combatants. The rules about interrogations were released publicly, debated in Congress and revealed to the enemy through the international news media. Would you give up information under those circumstances? Is this any way to fight a war? Is this a plan for victory or a recipe for defeat?

There are other factors involved in turning Iraq into a quagmire. We have turned on our own men, prosecuting them for war crimes that were never committed. We have limited our tactical and strategic objectives. We have ruled out the kind of full-scale assaults on enemy strongholds we used at the start of the war.

At the same time, President Bush sold out security at home by refusing to enforce the laws of the land with regard to border security and immigration policy. This undercut his authority and credibility as a strong leader for national security.

Is it too late to reverse course? Can victory still be achieved? Or is the war truly "lost," as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has proclaimed.

I know one thing for certain: Only when we acknowledge the mistakes of the past will we have an opportunity to correct them. I pray Americans wake up to these realities before it is too late.