Lessons Learned: The Iraq Invasion

Operation Iraqi Freedom began on March 20, 2003. Less than four months later, on July 9th, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reported to the congressional armed forces committee on the lessons of Iraq. Since then, there have been hundreds, probably thousands, of such reports, analyses, investigations, postmortems, and such.

During the early period, they were mostly of a military-technical nature, concerning the effects of weapons systems. By 2004–2005, the emphasis of the lessons had shifted to political issues. (Had the postwar planning been sufficiently thorough? Had it been wise to disband the Iraqi army and to engage in wholesale de-Baathification?) The debate became more and more politicized. Although the official aim of the campaign had been to destroy the weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s arsenal, no such weapons were found. Did this mean that the allegations had been a deliberate lie, a pretext by neoconservatives to produce a plausible case for going to war and to bring about regime change? Or had there been a genuine intelligence failure?

Eventually the debate over the lessons of Iraq focused on which were right and which were wrong. By 2009, articles began to appear in professional journals with titles like “Forget the Lessons of Iraq” (Armed Forces Journal).

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Lessons Learned: The Iraq Invasion

Practitioners in the intelligence community are drawing their own lessons from Iraq—about intel as evidence, communicating with policymakers, and false distinctions between strategy and tactics.

There are, of course, lessons to be learned from Iraq—some of a military-technical character, such as whether certain new weapons systems work, whether they should be discarded or improved. There are questions of a more general character, but not all of them have clear answers. It is probably correct that the planning for the postwar period was not as good as the military preparations. But could there have been better political planning? How could it have been assured that Saddam Hussein’s regime would be replaced by a more democratic or at least less aggressive one, how to assure that the defeat of the Baathist regime would not bring about a strengthening of Iran, that is to say a regime equally repressive and aggressive—or even worse?

This question was bound to come up time and again in the Middle East—but not only there. Could a democratic regime be imposed from the outside on societies without democratic traditions and institutions, countries deeply split internally on religious, ethnic, tribal lines? This problem appeared even in the case of preventing proliferation: Why prevent Iraq from acquiring weapons of mass destruction if there was no willingness (or possibility) to act with the same determination in the case of Iran?

American policy in the case of Iraq suffered from what some neuroscientists call “optimism bias,” in this case the tacit assumption that following the deposition of the old undesirable rulers things would somehow fall in their place. In the case of Iraq, the optimism bias was initially strong, mainly among those of a right-wing persuasion. More recently it has been prevalent above all among the left—hoping (frequently against hope) that “engagement,” diplomatic approaches, and concessions would solve conflicts, be they in the Far East or the Middle East or other parts of the globe.

In the case of the Arab Spring (to give but one example) it was argued, particularly in Europe, that the movement toward greater freedom always took time and was accompanied by setbacks. This is perfectly true but it tends to omit from view that Europe is heir to a political tradition quite different from the Middle East’s and that even in Europe it took almost a century after the revolutions of 1848 until democracy and peace were firmly anchored.

At present the main lesson to be learned from Iraq is probably a negative one—that “parataxic distortion” should be avoided. This is a fancy term coined by one school of American psychoanalysis. Translated into plain English, its lesson is to avoid the example of the cat that, having burned itself as the result of sitting down on a very hot stove, will avoid all future stoves even if they are very cold. Strategists (and political scientists) are forever searching for common denominators, laws, and lessons to be learned. Historians know from bitter experience that each historical situation is sui generis, differing in essential aspects from previous ones. Weapons systems are the same whether used in Asia, Africa, or the Antarctic (perfectionists may dissent even from this proposition), but the political, social, geographical situation is different in each case. What was true with regard to Afghanistan does not apply to Mali—the former is ideal guerrilla country whereas the Sahara desert is not. There are no jungles, no forests, no megacities, few mountains to hide—and few targets to attack.

There are some universally valid lessons to draw from Iraq but they are so obvious that one hesitates even to repeat them: That countries should get involved in armed conflicts only when immediate national interests are at stake, that if involvement does take place it should be carried out with overwhelming force (and may have to be repeated), that there should be no illusions concerning nation building and the imposition of democratic regimes from the outside. That in each case the risks of action should be weighed—but also the risks of inaction. And so on.

Some of these self-evident truths have been ignored in the past and as a result the present strong trend is toward withdrawal and inaction. This could have been foreseen. The question then arises—what are the vital national interests, how far should a withdrawal go? The present writer is not among the leading admirers of Oswald Spengler, but Spengler was not always wrong. He was right, for instance, when he wrote that trying to opt out of world politics does not necessarily offer protection against suffering from the effects of world politics.

Walter Laqueur is the author, most recently, of After the Fall: The End of the European Dream and the Decline of a Continent.

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