Lessons Learned: The Iraq Invasion

So far as official Washington is concerned, the lessons of the Iraq War were established and absorbed long ago. Since the 2008 presidential campaign almost no one has disputed Barack Obama’s contention that Iraq was “a dumb war,” or the corrective principles he and his national security team have adopted.

These might be summed up as follows: (a) the United States should never again commit its troops to a conflict in the Middle East, (b) US-sponsored “nation building” doesn’t work and is better done at home, and (c) any US intervention in a foreign country should be carried out indirectly or remotely—through allies, local forces, or drones.

Obama’s “light footprint” doctrine has drawn grumbles from neoconservatives and a few former congressional champions of the Iraq surge, such as Senator John McCain. Liberals have challenged the drone campaign on legal and human rights grounds. But virtually no one in Washington now disputes the bottom-line lesson that has congealed into conventional wisdom. Obama’s first secretary of defense, Robert Gates, summed it up most pungently in a 2011 speech: “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.”

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Lessons Learned: The Iraq Invasion

Americans seem to have learned very little from the Iraq invasion—not least neoconservatives, who have yet to seriously reconsider their support for military intervention abroad.

So Washington thinks it already knows the lessons of Iraq. But are those conclusions right? In a political context, probably so: Any proposal in 2013 to deploy American ground troops in harm’s way would almost certainly be greeted by a bipartisan buzz saw—a reality that the rulers of Iran, Syria, and North Korea, among others, seem to have factored into their behavior.

Still, the lessons of Iraq, as pursued by Obama, have already begun to produce their own problematic results, and demand their own hard conclusions. The time has come to begin debating what might be called the lessons of Iraq’s lessons—which, while not necessarily vindicating George W. Bush’s post-9/11 interventionism, cast plenty of doubt on whether the post-Iraq US strategy for combating Islamic terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction is any better.

One clear test of Obama’s no-more-Iraqs doctrine has come in North Africa, where successive and related civil wars in Libya and Mali have forced decisions about whether and how to respond. In 2011, Obama very reluctantly agreed to join an intervention in Libya led by France and Britain to help overthrow the regime of Muammar Qaddafi, but he withdrew US planes after the opening days of the fight. Similarly, in January the White House agreed to back a French intervention in Mali with transport and refueling aircraft, but only after a public show of foot-dragging.

Arguably the first results of Obama’s approach were promising: The Qaddafi regime in Libya was ousted by NATO, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) was driven out of Mali’s principal cities by French troops. But the drawbacks of the “light footprint” have become increasingly evident in Libya in recent months. Following the end of the war, requests by Libya’s new pro-Western authorities for US or NATO help with security and training were deflected, and funding requested by the Obama administration was held up by Congress. Meanwhile, the State Department rejected appeals by the US Embassy in Tripoli for increased security, and the Defense Department did not plan or prepare for the possibility of a crisis in a country where al-Qaeda–linked jihadists were known to be operating.

The catastrophic result was the September 11, 2012, sacking of the US mission in Benghazi and the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. This was a direct by-product of the post-Iraq mind-set and the withholding of resources it led to. Moreover, the trouble continues: Thanks to the Libyan government’s incapacity and its own lack of assets, the Obama administration not only has been unable to fulfill the president’s pledge to bring the Benghazi attackers to justice, but watched as the jihadist militia that carried out the attack redeployed in the city early in 2013 with impunity. Nor was Washington able to prevent or respond to a major terrorist attack in Algeria in January in which thirty-nine foreign hostages, including three Americans, were killed.

In other parts of the world, Obama’s standoffish approach is producing substantial political and diplomatic costs, from the growing anti-Americanism in Pakistan engendered by drone attacks to the incipient crumbling of an Afghan government that can no longer look to the United States for help in extending its political and economic reach. Not just regional partners such as the Persian Gulf states but major allies such as France and Israel are questioning whether they can count on the United States to act in the event of a crisis with Iran.

The most troubling results of the post-Iraq policy, however, are appearing in Syria, a country that in many respects resembles its neighbor. Like Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Syria until 2011 was locked down under a brutal dictator who stockpiled weapons of mass destruction and sought a nuclear capacity; as in Iraq, the regime was controlled by a sectarian minority in a country where Shiites and Sunnis, Kurds and Christians live uneasily together.

In Iraq, the US destruction of the dictatorship and mishandling of the postwar order opened the way to a sectarian war and the growth of an al-Qaeda branch that for a time controlled several cities. Iran armed and trained Shiite forces while Gulf states financed the Sunnis. Tens of thousands of civilians were slaughtered. Now much of the same scenario is unfolding in Syria—with the difference that the United States has done nothing either to start or to stanch the carnage.

Seen through the prism of Syria, the war in Iraq already looks different. The sectarian bloodletting and appearance of al-Qaeda seem less like the avoidable result of US bungling and more like the inevitable product of the breakdown of a 1960s-vintage Arab dictatorship. If Iraq had, like Syria, exploded on its own during the first months of the Arab Spring—as surely it would have, had Saddam still been in power—the results likely would have been similar.

The difference is the presence of US troops, and their role both in quickly eliminating the old regime and, eventually, putting an end to the sectarian war. In Iraq that effort imposed an undeniably high price on the United States: more than forty-four hundred US lives lost, some thirty-two thousand wounded, and hundred of billions spent. Yet Iraq today, despite continuing violence, is an island of calm compared to Syria, and no threat to its neighbors.

In Syria, the costs to the US are mounting fast. An al-Qaeda affiliate is rapidly gaining strength; key American allies, including Turkey, Jordan, and Israel, are in danger of being drawn into the fighting; hundreds of thousands of refugees are pouring across borders; and chemical weapons stocks are increasingly insecure.

Already it’s worth speculating about which will ultimately be seen as the worse US decision in the post–Cold War Middle East: the choice to invade Iraq, or the refusal to intervene in Syria. If the answer seems obvious to many in Washington now, that could be because the lessons of the lessons of Iraq have yet to be learned.

Jackson Diehl is the deputy editorial page editor of the Washington Post.

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