Near the beginning of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt set the terms for victory, making it crystal clear that “unconditional surrender” by the Axis powers was the only acceptable outcome. A few years later, the Axis capitulated. This was the high point of America’s near century long winning streak (with the notable and very controversial exception of Vietnam). The span between the start of the Spanish American War and the end of the Cold War helped define the 20th century as the American century.

Today, things are more complicated, and we have reason to wonder if America has forgotten how to be victorious.

General George Patton famously said to the Third Army before D-Day, “Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser … for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American.” Yet New York Times columnist Bret Stephens fears that the American character has changed, saying, “In the past 50 years, the United States has gotten good at losing wars.” Stephens points to the conclusion of conflicts in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Beirut and Mogadishu, and heavily qualified victories in Iraq and Libya, and stresses that a willingness to accept defeat could create a situation where Americans won’t recognize what is necessary when a truly existential crisis hits.

Stephens may be right, but there’s more to it. For many years, few in positions of authority have defined the objectives of America and its allies the way Roosevelt did. It should thus come as no great surprise that America and her friends have struggled to achieve victory.

Think about it: have you heard our political leaders clearly articulate what America’s goal is in Ukraine? What America wants from Israel in Gaza? What about what America wanted in Afghanistan? If you can’t, does this say anything about how Americans are thinking about these conflicts?

The Biden administration has said that America is with Ukraine “as long as it takes.” But this stance raises the question: as long as it takes … to accomplish what?

Vague ideas of Russia “losing” sound nice, but this isn’t a policy unless you define what wining and losing is. Does it require a cessation of hostilities and Ukraine still existing? In what form? Does it involve Russia withdrawing to its pre-2022 borders? What about Russia’s 2014 flagrantly illegal occupation of Crimea which was the real start to this conflict? Does it require Russian disarmament? The end of the current Russian government?

House Speaker Mike Johnson voiced the commonsensical view that Ukraine hanging on is important because it might lead to a Russia-NATO confrontation if Ukraine loses. But which outcome makes such a confrontation less likely? Which do we have the power to bring about at an acceptable cost? Few in the halls of power seem to be discussing these issues.

The Biden administration’s announcement that the U.S. will allow some of its weapons to be used on Russian soil, potentially allowing Ukraine to regain the initiative, is imperative to Ukraine’s survival. But it would be much more important if Russia knew it meant that the U.S. would maintain its support until it had achieved a specific goal which has yet to be clearly articulated.

Particularly in a nuclear era, a Roosevelt-like “unconditional surrender” is not always achievable. America has frequently accepted qualified victories rather than defeats or wider conflicts. President Harry Truman intended to unify the Korean peninsula under a free government. But the U.S. was forced to accept the qualified victory of a free South Korea, rather than invade China, which had intervened on behalf of the North Koreans. But the original goal, even if unaccomplished, allowed for the American public, and the world, to see that while victory had not been absolute, it had been real compared to a North Korean victory.

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The war in Afghanistan had similarities. Some had unrealistic expectations of what was achievable in terms of making Afghanistan into a modern democratic state, but the conventional wisdom that America had failed to accomplish much of anything is simply false. By the time the Taliban was starting to reassert itself, Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar were both dead, the U.S. and the Afghan military had control of most of the country with U.S. casualties of two dozen a year or fewer. Funding to sustain the status quo had massively shrunk. American control of Bagram Air Base meant the U.S. military had a base of operations near China, Russia and Iran. And it was Afghanistan special forces who were fighting and dying to keep the Taliban at bay. Contra to the perceptions of too many Americans, this was not a hopeless situation, but a qualified, half-victory.

Yet no president since George W. Bush had seriously attempted to define a goal in Afghanistan. As former Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani (now of the Hudson Institution) pointed out, multiple presidents since were “making foreign policy on the basis of a bumper sticker, ‘No Forever Wars.’”

In other words, America lost because both policymakers and the public failed to understand what had been accomplished, why it was needed, or to articulate a better path forward. Now, Afghanistan is again a safe haven for terrorists, and innocent women are beheaded with frightening frequency. Any notion that this won’t come back to haunt America is naive.

The Biden administration’s recently proposed ceasefire in the Israel/Gaza conflict also suffers from a lack of defining victory. The administration contends that Hamas is sufficiently diminished since it is “no longer capable” of carrying out another mass-murder event like it did on Oct. 7, 2023. This claim is questionable. Nobody thought that Hamas could carry out such an attack on Oct. 6 either, and Hamas’s leadership has openly declared intentions to commit as many atrocities as it can. How long until it is capable again? A year? Five years? A decade? We don’t know. In other words, the Biden administration is not articulating a condition for victory; it’s merely accepting an apparent moment of relative calm in lieu of of victory.


What would victory look like? Ghaith al-Omari, a former negotiator for the Palestinian Authority, challenges the common wisdom “that Hamas cannot be eradicated since ideologies cannot be defeated militarily.” While ideologies cannot be totally defeated, they can be “sufficiently defeated so as to turn them from major threats to marginal irritants.”

Omari goes on to stress that Hamas must be denied its ability to influence politics through violence, that a military defeat allows for at least the possibility of progress on the wider issue of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But in absence of articulating what victory means, as Omari does, is it any wonder that American policy seems to be flailing?

It does not take a Ph.D. in international relations to understand that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, the shifting sands in the Middle East due in large part to the Gaza war, and China’s increasingly aggressive testing of international norms, means America is being forced to grapple with difficult choices concerning both “hot” and “cold” conflicts and will be for the foreseeable future. As former Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously said, “At the top, there are no easy choices. All are between evils, the consequences of which are hard to judge.” Decision makers need to think early about what victory will mean in any given situation and articulate it to the public, or else risk slow-walking America into disaster.

Cliff Smith is a lawyer and a former congressional staffer. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he works on national security related issues. His views are his own.

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