“Learning the Right Lessons from Iraq” – it is not too late!

This CATO report is worth reading, a developed exposition of things the 4GW community has been saying since 2003.  {Chet Richards explains these things  more fully in his book If We Can Keep It.}

Learning the Right Lessons from Iraq“, Benjamin H. Friedman, Harvey Sapolsky and Christopher Preble, Cato Institute (13 February 2008) — Executive summary:

Foreign policy experts and policy analysts are misreading the lessons of Iraq. The emerging conventional wisdom holds that success could have been achieved in Iraq with more troops, more cooperation among U.S. government agencies, and better counterinsurgency doctrine. To analysts who share these views, Iraq is not an example of what not to do but of how not to do it. Their policy proposals aim to reform the national security bureaucracy so that we will get it right the next time.

The near-consensus view is wrong and dangerous. What Iraq demonstrates is a need for a new national security strategy, not better tactics and tools to serve the current one. By insisting that Iraq was ours to remake were it not for the Bush administration’s mismanagement, we ignore the limits on our power that the war exposes and in the process risk repeating our mistake.

The popular contention that the Bush administration’s failures and errors in judgment can be attributed to poor planning is also false. There was ample planning for the war, but it conflicted with the Bush administration’s expectations. To the extent that planning failed, therefore, the lesson to draw is not that the United States national security establishment needs better planning, but that it needs better leaders. That problem is solved by elections, not bureaucratic tinkering.

The military gives us the power to conquer foreign countries, but not the power to run them. Because there are few good reasons to take on missions meant to resuscitate failed governments, terrorism notwithstanding, the most important lesson from the war in Iraq should be a newfound appreciation for the limits of our power.

Read the full article!  Here is just one of the authors’ provocative insights.

To analysts who share these views, Iraq is not an example of what not to do but of how not to do it. It is an experiment that teaches Americans lessons about how to manage foreign populations. Based in part on these lessons, Washington is reforming the national security bureaucracy to make it a better servant of a strategy that requires military occupations, state-building, and counterinsurgency operations— what the military calls reconstruction and stabilization.

The benefits from Iraq, whatever they might eventually be (if any), cannot be worth the trillion (or $2T) they cost in dollars — let alone real cost in the dead and injured Americans.  This illustrates the dysfunctional aspect of our government:  failure prompts plans to do the same thing again.  This is the opposite of Vince Lombardi’s command “run to daylight” and the ancient adage to “re-enforce success, starve failure.”  Obeying some incoherent and unstated urges, the US government burns away out assets — wealth, military, reputational — in an insane attempt to build an empire.

The November elections are coming.  Make your voice heard!

Please share your comments by posting below, relevant and brief please (max 250 words). Too long comments will be edited down (very long ones might be deleted). Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

4 thoughts on ““Learning the Right Lessons from Iraq” – it is not too late!

  1. “The benefits from Iraq, whatever they might eventually be (if any), cannot be worth the trillion (or $2T) they cost in dollars – let alone real cost in the dead and injured Americans.”

    Yes, and that’s why I call it a lost war. Well, this is one more position that earns me a lot of fierce opposition… “War or not war? Victory or defeat?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Winning, losing — so much meaning crammed into such short words. War is not like ping pong, with a clear “real time” way to keep score. Even generations later it is often difficult to say who won a war.
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    So I prefer to speak of weighing costs vs. benefits. Still complex and subjective, but more precise. Also, this lacks the emotional juice of “winning” and “losing” — a good thing, imo, as these loaded terms often make dialogue difficult or impossible.

  2. It’s impossible to really weight costs and benefits – you cannot convert it all to one ‘currency’. Instead, you can ask your common sense. This time common sense says me that according to my preferences it’s a failure since day 1.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I believe you are overstating this, in that imo it is not “impossible to really weigh costs and benefits” — which implies that doing so has no value. I said that doing so is “complex and subjective” — but provides a basis for analysis and discussion.
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    Supporting your view with “common sense tells me” leaves no basis for evaluating it. All we can say is “thank you for sharing.”

  3. Not to pile on here with Sven, Cunctator, but if we attack Iran (probably in the next couple of months), there’s a very good chance we’ll lose our army a la the Sicilian Expedition.

    Then I think it’s fairly safe to say we lost. :(
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    Fabius Maximus replies: If, if, if. If this then that.
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    We were discussing the situation at this point in time. Discussing future events is a different conversation. Since we can only guess about the future, there are many likley scenarios.

  4. Friedman’s article is well worth reading. He pretty well destroys all the official lessons so far drawn from Iraq. His argument for a foreign policy of restraint and modelling rather than imposing democracy is convincing.

    However, Friedman avoids talking about the “real” goals in Iraq, aside from the fictive, impossible ones of imposing democracy — control of oil, for example. Were these goals false, could they have been achieved any other way? The larger question is, what is meant by “national interest”, can it be achieved without force, is there such a thing as a cooperative approach with states whose national interest is different from ours?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I noticed that. Friedman pretends that our public goals were the real ones. This distorts his analysis. For example, disbanding the army becomes a just a foolish mistake. In fact, long-term occupation of Iraq — our “enduring bases” — meant that we were to be Iraq’s defense force. Disbanding the army was a success in that Iraq’s government became dependent on us — is largely so to this day — and unable to force us out.

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