I have been thinking about this whole debate over the "War on Terror" and whether it can be "won" or "lost" for quite some time now, but I guess it worth addressing now that the GOP-spoon-fed-media are attacking Sen. Reid for saying that the war in Iraq is lost.
There were clearly two main phases of this war, which really are two separate wars. The first was the initial invasion, which America obviously won. Saddam's government was quickly overthrown, his military destroyed, his son's killed, and Saddam himself going into hiding and all with very little burning of oil fields and other environmental self-destructions. Great work by the military, even if it was fighting a weaker opponent than they did in 1991. After all, it had a much bigger task, and with far less troops--thanks to Rumsfeld--to do it.
The second phase was the occupation, which everyone who looks at reality knows was lost. Not in the sense of military retreat, but in the sense that the Iraqi people quickly became distrustful and disliking of the "coalition." And the Iraqis had good cause because college Republicans who were put in charge of Iraq--like the 24 year old real estate major who was in charge of the Iraqi stock exchange--messed everything up horribly. We couldn't even execute Saddam properly. Massive weapons stock piles went unguarded, giving groups plenty of raw material for IEDs... You know the litany as well as I do.
The point is, Americans are not seen as liberators but as occupiers who just want Iraqi oil and don't really care about democracy. Meanwhile, our military was unable to provide security and stability in important areas of the country, like the capitol were most people live. This is because they were not trained to be diplomats and police officers, but to conquer. Republicans used to critique Clinton's aggressive internationalism as being a "policeman to the world" well now our military is Baghdad PD.
The resulting instability and lack of security enabled tribalism to prevail. Ethnicity-based gangs offered neighborhoods protection in exchange for payments, these gangs infiltrated the state security apparatus, not only enabling the Baghdad Iraqi police force to become a tool of ethnic cleansing but also body guards to members of parliament themselves. Imagine if the IDF didn't exist and it was just groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Jewish extremists warring in the streets of Jerusalem...that is what happening.
Militarily, US forces cannot "win" Iraq back at this point. Maybe in 2003 or 2004, a surge and competent multinational leadership (with Muslim troops and leaders) could have made a difference. Politically, no side wants to renegotiate because they all believe they can achieve control of the country via genocide. There is nothing for these groups to gain by talking to the US or US-backed Iraqis.
Maybe the US forces are slowing the rate of such a genocide, as conservatives argue, but I don't think the US has any credibility left with the Iraqis to stay in a humanitarian capacity. If we give up our bases, let the Iraqi government invite in NATO or the Arab League (plus Iran) or the UN, we could be a part of that contingent. But the "coalition" has no power to serve as a power broker.
Republicans like to get into this rhetorical battle over "losing" and "defeat" on "the War on Terror," even though you can never defeat a tactic on the battlefield. What the U.S. and its allies are really fighting against around the globe is religious extremism that wants to dissolve church-state boundaries to oppress women and to eliminate all religious dissenters through violence. These groups use terror because they don't have the multi-billion dollar military budget of the US, and because it is pretty cost effective.
That war has not been lost. However, Bush's policies have strengthened the enemy. Iraq has wasted our resources (money, equipment, troop moral, public support, and troops themselves) on a side project that created more trained radicals willing and able to kill us. So now we have no troops to send to Afghanistan, where the Taliban is regaining control, no covert ops to send to Indonesia or deep into Pakistan. And the American people no longer trust President Bush, so he has no leeway in fighting this true war. Moreover, the world has long stopped trusting President Bush, so he will get no help from any country without bribes.
As many others have said, instead of using the events of 9/11 to rally the world behind the threat of religious extremism and eliminating it, Bush chose to go to war against someone who tried to kill his Dad, and to finish the job his Dad started. He chose to use the war as a club to beat his political opponents with, leveraging it into victories in 2002 and 2004. Meanwhile, he made the real war that started on 9/11 harder to win for him and his successor. That's why Cheney and his enablers in the Media are trying to tear down Harry Reid over the win/loose argument. They know that Al Qeada and ideologically allied groups are stronger than they were on 9/10.