In 281 B.C., king Pyrrhus of Epirus (an island off the coast of Greece) landed in Tarentum with an army of about 30,000 men and 20 elephants. He was trying to defeat Rome, which was then threatening to conquer the southeastern end of the Italian peninsula, which had been colonized by Greek settlers. In 280 B.C., he won the battle of Heroclea, but according to the historian Dionysus at the cost of about 13,000 men including many of his best soldiers. The next year, he invaded Apulia and defeated the Romans in the battle of Asculum. He lost another 3,500 soldiers, including many of his best officers, from his already depleted army. After winning the battle, Pyrrhus is reputed to have said, "One more such victory will undo me!" In fact, after an unsuccessful foray into Sicily, Pyrrhus' army was no longer strong enough to even administer what he had conquered in Italy and he was forced to return to Epirus. He had simply taken too many casualties to be worth the relatively small tactical victories they had produced.
A victory of this type, in which the costs outweigh the gains has ever since been known as a 'Pyrrhic victory.' It is not limited to military battles (though the Germans won one famously in the Second World War, when they sacrificed their most dangerous unit, their airborne unit, in return for capturing the island of Crete from the British and the Greeks.) Other examples of what might be considered a Pyrrhic victory could be a football team that wins a regular season game but does so at the cost of an injury to a star quarterback who will be sorely missed come playoff time, a businessman who irretrievably damages his reputation by lying in order to close a business deal or perhaps a bidder at an auction who outbids his or her rivals but soon finds that the article is not worth at all what has been paid for it.
Lately we've heard the right claiming that the recent downturn in violence in Iraq portends some great 'victory.'
First, I'm not a bit convinced that the downturn is more than a temporary lull. We've seen downturns in violence there several times in the past, such as after the early 2005 offensive that retook Fallujah, and in the end it has proven a fleeting moment of relief. Other than al-Qaeda (which has however proven resilient in the past) all the other major players in Iraq-- Iran, the Shiite and Sunni militias, are still present and armed, and the Iraqi government has done absolutely nothing during the present 'breather' to make a breakthrough that will prevent a future civil war.
But let's even entertain for a moment the possibility that the right is right (I know, I know, but even a broken clock is right twice a day.) Suppose that in fact, everything does work out, that the Shiites and Sunnis do figure out their problems and that Iraq becomes stable. Let's even imagine a situation in which the Iraqi government comes together exactly as the Bush administration hopes it will.
Then let's consider what in this best case scenario the U.S. will have gained and lost from the Iraq war:
* Saddam Hussein is gone. He would be seventy years old right now if we hadn't invaded.
* We inflict a military defeat on Al-Qaeda and reduce their numbers to maybe just a handful hiding out in a country where there only were a handful hiding out in 2003 anyway.
* American companies make a lot of money rebuilding Iraq and from exploiting Iraqi oil.
* We know for sure that there are no WMD in Iraq, and we didn't even need Hans Blix to finish looking for them to find that out.
* After a five year struggle, we can say that we won.
* About 4,000 American troops dead, tens of thousands injured.
* $1.6 - 2 trillion (depending on the estimate) in combined actual outlays for the war and the effect of the cost of the war on our economy.
* Iran has become the most influential power in the region, and they get rid of their archenemy Saddam without firing a shot; an Iraqi government with close ties to Tehran, something the Iranians fought for a decade to achieve in the 1980's without success.
* Iran has become increasingly belligerent and been able to make substantial progress towards developing real WMD (nukes) while our army is tied down in Iraq and unable to seriously threaten Iran (as it will be for the foreseeable future even if this is a 'win'.)
* The aura of American military invincibility has been cast to the wind, guaranteeing more future challenges from who knows where (but we will be tested, of that you can be sure).
* Al-Qaeda given time and a chance to regroup (together with the Taliban) in the country where they were present before, because we shifted our focus to Iraq before the job was done in Afghanistan.
* The unquestioned international support for America which existed after 9/11 long since gone.
* With torture and other rights abuses practiced, America no longer has the moral authority to lead the world.
* Except for the 2001 tax cuts and the medicare drug giveaway, virtually none of the Bush administration and GOP domestic agenda realized as the administration spent virtually its entire political capital on stampeding into Iraq; for that matter even the tax cuts are still due to expire on schedule after the Republican Congress was unable to make them permanent. Now, granted I am a Democrat and don't mind seeing Republicans fail, but with it having been three quarters of a century since the previous time when the GOP had a majority in both houses of Congress and the White House (the 1952-1954 Senate was 50-50 with the GOP nominally in control by virtue of the Vice Presidency) they clearly sacrificed a great deal for getting us fixated on Iraq. Are you a Republican who voted for the GOP because you wanted to see Republicans reduce the size of government, for example? Then Wait another LIFETIME, Buddy!
In other words, even if conservatives were for a change 100% right, and the reduction in violence we see right now in Iraq is a real 'victory' and not just another temporary lull in a continuing cycle, the best they can claim is a Pyrrhic victory.