Summary: This is a follow-up to Remembering is the first step to learning. Living in the now is ignorance.
“The commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies.”
— Lord Salisbury, discussing Great Britain’s policy on the Eastern Question (1877)
“My first company commander told me that there’s two ways to learn
1. blunt trauma
2. mindless repetition.”
— Mike Few, from the comments
These quotes go to the heart of American geopolitics, the deep flaw: a too-slow response to information, and unwillingness to learn from events. That is perhaps the great lesson — war warning — from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We show no signs of learning it. The outcomes of these wars were apparent long ago, even to non-specialists like me. It’s a great betrayal to those who suffered in these wars to treat these as occasions for patriotic rituals, but fail to learn.
In March 2007 I wrote that the war was lost, the outlines of the new Iraq were visible, and we could help build it then leave: The Iraq insurgency has ended, which opens a path to peace. In September 2007 this was even clearer; from Beyond Insurgency: An End to Our War in Iraq
The following are guesses amidst the fog of war. The first two expand upon observations in my article of March 2007. These were controversial then, but almost consensus wisdom today.
- Iraq is fragmenting into three parts.
- Development of local, armed “governments” drives this process. Ethnic cleansing is their major tool. This is a road to peace for Iraq, perhaps the only path still open.
- It’s not about us. The Coalition has been and probably will be irrelevant to nation-building in Iraq.
- More fighting lies in Iraq’s future, mostly battles for control of the new proto-states and border wars. Hopefully this means less killing.
By July 2008 it was obvious:
As time goes by the fabric holding “Iraq” together torques and tears. Kurdistan is now in almost all respects an independent nation. Slowly the Sunni and Shiite Arab regions are developing their own political and governmental apparatus. Eventually the pieces will fit together in a new configuration. That process might be peaceful, incendiary, or anywhere in between. We have little to say about it.
Yet the war continued until the July 2009 withdrawal from the cities, with the last troops out by the end of 2011. Blood and money spilled in an already vain quixotic war, for no gain for America. Worse, out intervention unleashed forces now tearing Iraq apart, so that the toll of suffering greatly exceeds anything Saddam might have done — something we refuse to see (amnesia is so comforting).
“Calling Afghanistan a war without exit or victory is stupid as well.”
— Joshua Foust, in February 2008, one of the many hawks who built a career advocating war in Afghanistan. Six years later we have found neither victory nor an exit.
In October 2003 my second post ever said that we were losing in Afghanistan; the 100+ subsequent posts described this sad tale in detail. Yesterday’s post showed that this was obvious to any objective observer, as Stephen M. Walt explains in “Leaving Afghanistan: Not With a Bang, But a Whimper“, Foreign Policy, 28 October 2013 — Excerpt:
I don’t know if the United States and NATO could have achieved a meaningful victory in Afghanistan had the Bush administration not embarked on its foolish misadventure in Iraq. But it was clear by 2009 that doubling down in Afghanistan wasn’t going to produce an effective or fully legitimate Afghan government and wasn’t going to produce a strategically more favorable outcome from the perspective of U.S. interests. But President Obama decided to “surge” there anyway, mostly because he wanted to look tough on national security and feared the domestic backlash if he cut our losses and withdrew.
Now, some five years later, NATO and the U.S. are preparing to (mostly) leave.
Yet this monumental failure remains missing from our new media, or has this prompted the necessary debate about how and why this happened.
Failure to see, followed by failure to learn
“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
— George Santayana, Life of Reason (1906)
Not seeing this, our unwillingness to learn, resulted in my most foolish predictions. If it was obvious these wars were unwinnable, they would end soon.
- The Iraq War will end in 2009, 19 May 2008
- The beginning of the end to our war in Afghanistan, 13 August 2009
As usual, my misunderstanding of our condition — our problem — produced scores of equally false analysis about ways to reform America.
Now I believe reform must start with a clearer vision of ourselves and the world. Reform will not come from a set of technocratic policy proposals — the magic platform that gains popular support. A deeper change in ourselves is needed. Much like that which transformed English subjects into a self-governing people.
Our amnesia about our past, unwillingness to learn from experience, and difficulty seeing the present are flaws that offset the dynamism and adaptability of US society. Better describing the problem and a solution is the goal of the How to Reform America series. Contribute your thoughts in the comments.
For More Information
(a) All posts about our wars in Iraq, Af-Pak & elsewhere.
(b) Steps to fixing America:
- Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008
- Five steps to fixing America, 19 October 2011
- A third try: The First Step to reforming America, 28 May 2013
- The second step to reforming America, 14 August 2013
- The third step to reforming America, with music, 3 September 2013
(c) Other posts about reforming America:
- Fixing America: the choices are elections, revolt, or passivity, 18 August 2008
- The project to reform America: a matter for science or a matter of will?, 16 March 2010
- Can we reignite the spirit of America?, 14 September 2010
- The sure route to reforming America, 16 November 2010
- Should we despair, giving up on America?, 5 May 2012
- We are alone in the defense of the Republic, 5 July 2012
- The bad news about reforming America: time is our enemy, 27 June 2013
- Why the 1% is winning, and we are not, 26 July 2013
- Occupy & Tea Party are alike, both saving America through cosplay, 18 October 2013