How can we ever claim victory in Iraq?

Since the beginning of the sad saga of the Iraq war, the problem has been that the American people have argued the wrong issue.

In the beginning, it was the ill-fated hunt for weapons of mass destruction. Where were those danged things?

When the WMDs failed to turn up, the argument shifted to, “We have to fight 'em over there so we don't have to fight 'em over here,” as the Bush administration wrongly linked Saddam Hussein with 9-11 – a selling job so successful that some Americans still believe it today. Then it was to “rid the world of Saddam Hussein,” as President Bush started saying after the earlier arguments collapsed.

This summer, the success of the surge is the latest proof we are “winning.”

But that still misses the more important issue: After more than five, bloody, frustrating, costly, incomprehensible years, the Iraq war isn't “winnable” under any circumstances because it wasn't worth fighting to begin with. I mean, if you bet $10 on a horse that gets you only $5 back if he wins, you haven't “won” anything.

Even if we win, we lose

But let's put the best face on the future of this sad, shattered country. Let's say “progress” continues and at some point in the near or distant future, the struggling Iraqi government indeed “stands up” and allows our soldiers at last to “stand down.” Let's say violence drops to the occasional car bomb and beheading, and we bring home all but a token force of “peacekeepers.”

Victory, we declare. But what exactly have we won?

Originally, our reason for invading was the imaginary WMDs. That was the only reason for launching this preemptive war.

How do I know this? Because if Saddam had surrendered his WMDs, the U.S. said at the time it would not invade. Saddam – with all his evilness – would still be in power today. The United States would not have fired a single shot to help the Iraqi people get rid of him.

But, alas, Saddam could not produce weapons he did not have. As a result, thousands of Americans died and thousands more are permanently disabled so that we could learn for ourselves that Saddam was telling the truth about his WMDs.

Until the current surge helped tamp down the violence, the U.S. stumbled through years of a disastrously boneheaded military strategy with too few, poorly equipped troops trying to tame a lawless country rife with centuries-old religious grudges. In the process, we:

Killed an unknown number of innocent Iraqi civilians. (Remember “We had to destroy the village to save it” in Vietnam?);

Destroyed most of Iraq's infrastructure, which you and I are paying to rebuild;

Provided al-Qaida with its best recruiting instrument;

Radicalized an unknown number of Middle East citizens who didn't previously hate us, and

Made us perhaps the most despised country in the world.

Your share: $13,000

The eventual economic cost to U.S. taxpayers of this “victory”? By one estimate, a breathtaking $3 trillion, which would be an average of $13,000 per American citizen. (When it was selling the war to us in 2003, the Bush administration's first estimate was a measly $30 billion.)

Haven't noticed a big jump yet in your taxes to pay for the war? That's because, rather than pay as we go, President Bush and Congress decided the war would go down easier with us if we borrowed most of the money to fight it.

Our children and grandchildren will have to pay it back, plus interest. Instead of paying as we go, President Bush and the Congress actually cut taxes. And we thanked them, applauding this lunacy and spending the extra money as fast as we got it. Shame on all of us.

If we “win” the Iraq war, all of the above – from burying thousands of America's bravest citizens to creating terrorists of the future to leaving our descendants with the bill – will be the price we have paid for the victory.

Does this sound like a victory to you?