Iraq gives us another opportunity to confront our mistakes, and learn from them

Summary: The Iraq War begins a new phase, perhaps with US involvement. But we’ve not admitted, let along learned from, the massive institutional failures of the public policy machinery that produced it. Departments of Defense and State, the National Security Council, military, the President, NGOs, the press — all failed. Instead we focus on pretend solutions, and the Dreamland of what-ifs. Here is some material to help start the process. How well we learn might determine our results during the next generation.

“My first company commander told me that there’s two ways to learn: blunt trauma and mindless repetition.”
— Mike Few, from the comments

System Failure


  1. The big picture of US foreign interventions
  2. How we got into Iraq
  3. The long results of Iraq
  4. For More Information


(1) The big picture of US foreign interventions

Iraq delivers bloody lesson on blowback
Stephen Kinzer (Visiting Fellow, Boston U), Boston Globe, 22 June 2014


After many decades in the covert-action business, Americans have come to learn what “blowback” means. Often our foreign interventions produce quick victory. Then things go bad. Short-term success dissolves into long-term failure. Many of our interventions have not only thrown target countries into violent upheaval, but weakened our own security.

The recent explosion of militant power in Iraq is a new example of how serious this blowback can be.

… Bombing Khadafy out of power may have briefly felt good, but it has thrown Libya into chaos and strengthened some of North Africa’s most brutal terrorist armies.

This weekend marks the 60th anniversary of one of the most ill-conceived of all American interventions. At the end of June 1954, the CIA deposed the elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz. “Operation Success,” as the Guatemala project was brightly code-named, did seem successful at the time. We deposed a leader we didn’t like and replaced him with one who would do our bidding. Yet within a few years, tensions set off by this intervention cast Guatemala into civil war. Hundreds of thousands of people, most of them Mayan peasants, died violently over the next 30 years. Today Guatemala is poor and backward, a weak state penetrated by drug gangs and plagued by unremitting violence.

Last year was the 60th anniversary of an equally disastrous intervention, the one that brought down Iran’s last democratic government in 1953. The CIA code-named it “Operation Ajax,” supposedly after the household cleanser. Its premise was that if we could return the shah to his Peacock Throne, he would wipe away Iranian nationalism and Iran would become pro-American forever. The opposite happened.


American interventions — from Cuba and Nicaragua to Vietnam, the Congo and Afghanistan — have been a major part of modern world history. Many have provoked violent backlash that has palpably weakened the United States. Despite these painful experiences, though, some in Washington continue to insist that we must continue crashing into foreign countries to “bring freedom” or “fight terrorism.” Their aggressiveness ultimately provokes responses like this month’s militant surge in Iraq.

The blowback from our long-ago interventions has long been evident. Now we can add Iraq to the list of countries where we mistakenly thought we could impose our will by force. Another foreign adventure has come back to haunt us.


(2)  How we got into Iraq

This provides a brief description of how we got into Iraq. It’s a sad story. Bushes officials followed what they imagined Bush wanted, in a way that echos “working towards the Führer” (That’s an observation about organizational dynamics. Bush was not Hitler, or like Hitler).

Iraq: The War of the Imagination
Mark Danner, The New York Review of Books, 21 December 2006


This is precisely what the President didn’t want, particularly after September 11; deeply distrustful of the bureaucracy, desirous of quick, decisive action, impatient with bureaucrats and policy intellectuals, the President wanted to act. Suskind writes:

For George W. Bush, there had been an evolution on such matters — from the early, pre-9/11 President, who had little grasp of foreign affairs and made few major decisions in that realm; to the post-9/11 President, who met America’s foreign challenges with decisiveness born of a brand of preternatural, faith-based, self-generated certainty. The policy process, in fact, never changed much. Issues argued, often vociferously, at the level of deputies and principals rarely seemed to go upstream in their fullest form to the President’s desk; and, if they did, it was often after Bush seemed to have already made up his mind based on what was so often cited as his “instinct” or “gut.”

Woodward tends to blame “the broken policy process” on the relative strength of personalities gathered around the cabinet table: the power and ruthlessness of Rumsfeld, the legendary “bureaucratic infighter”; the weakness of Rice, the very function and purpose of whose job, to let the President both benefit from and control the bureaucracy, was in effect eviscerated. Suskind, more convincingly, argues that Bush and Cheney constructed precisely the government they wanted: centralized, highly secretive, its clean, direct lines of decision unencumbered by information or consultation. “There was never any policy process to break, by Condi or anyone else,” Richard Armitage, the former deputy secretary of state, remarks to Suskind. “There was never one from the start. Bush didn’t want one, for whatever reason.” Suskind suggests why in an acute analysis of personality and leadership:

Of the many reasons the President moved in this direction, the most telling may stem from George Bush’s belief in his own certainty and, especially after 9/11, his need to protect the capacity to will such certainty in the face of daunting complexity. His view of right and wrong, and of righteous actions — such as attacking evil or spreading “God’s gift” of democracy — were undercut by the kind of traditional, shades-of-gray analysis that has been a staple of most presidents’ diets. This President’s traditional day began with Bible reading at dawn, a workout, breakfast, and the briefings of foreign and domestic threats…. The hard, complex analysis, in this model, would often be a thin offering, passed through the filters of Cheney or Rice, or not presented at all.

…This granted certain unique advantages to Bush. With fewer people privy to actual decisions, tighter confidentiality could be preserved, reducing leaks. Swift decisions — either preempting detailed deliberation or ignoring it — could move immediately to implementation, speeding the pace of execution and emphasizing the hows rather than the more complex whys.

What Bush knew before, or during, a key decision remained largely a mystery. Only a tiny group — Cheney, Rice, Card, Rove, Tenet, Rumsfeld — could break this seal.

To the rest of the government, of course, this “mystery” must have been excruciating to endure; Suskind describes how many of those in the “foreign policy establishment” found themselves “befuddled” by the way the traditional policy process was viewed not only as unproductive but “perilous.” Information, that is, could slow decision-making; indeed, when it had to do with a bold and risky venture like the Iraq war, information and discussion — an airing, say, of the precise obstacles facing a “democratic transition” conducted with a handful of troops — could paralyze it. If the sober consideration of history and facts stood in the way of bold action then it would be the history and the facts that would be discarded. The risk of doing nothing, the risk, that is, of the status quo, justified acting. Given the grim facts on the ground — the likelihood of a future terrorist attack from the “malignant” Middle East, the impossibility of entirely protecting the country from it — better to embrace the unknown. Better, that is, to act in the cause of “constructive instability” — a wonderfully evocative phrase, which, as Suskind writes, was

the term used by various senior officials in regard to Iraq — a term with roots in pre-9/11 ideas among neoconservatives about the need for a new, muscular, unbounded American posture; and outgrowths that swiftly took shape after the attacks made everything prior to 9/11 easily relegated to dusty history.

The past — along with old-style deliberations based on cause and effect or on agreed-upon precedents — didn’t much matter; nor did those with knowledge and prevailing policy studies, of agreements between nations, or of long-standing arrangements defining the global landscape.

What mattered, by default, was the President’s “instinct” to guide America across the fresh, post-9/11 terrain — a style of leadership that could be rendered within tiny, confidential circles.

America, unbound, was duly led by a President, unbound.

It is that “duly led,” of course, that is the question. Information, history, and all the other attributes of a deliberative policy may inhibit action but they do so by weighing and calculating risk. Dispensing with them has no consequences only if you accept the proposition that the Iraq war so clearly disproves: that bold action must always make us safer.

Lessons learned

(3)  The long results of Iraq

Iraq Everlasting: We are still stuck in 2003, and it isn’t (only) George W. Bush’s fault
Frank Rich, NY Magazine, 4 June 2014

Rich names liberals who supported the war, liberals who opposed the war, and liberals who supported the war AND later admitted they were wrong. Excerpt:

Where are we, exactly? As President Obama implicitly reconfirmed in last week’s West Point address calling for a restrained American role abroad, the massive blunder of Iraq remains the nation’s inescapable existential burden two and a half years after our last troops departed. Indeed, the war continues to pile up collateral damage and defeats daily. Without America’s wrong turn into Iraq, perhaps the Taliban would be extinct rather than resurgent in Afghanistan as we head for the exits to meet Obama’s new 2016 pullout deadline. Without the taint of the Iraq debacle, a war deceitfully carried out in the name of 9/11, perhaps ticket sales at the new 9/11 museum would not be moving so slowly that one can imagine them ending up at the half-price booth; perhaps even George W. Bush might have dared to show up for the museum’s opening rather than plead a “scheduling conflict.”

As for Iraq itself, the just-completed election (few photos of purple fingers this time) all but guaranteed a third term for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a mercurial autocrat like the other leaders America sponsored after 9/11, Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai and Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf. Under Maliki, Iraq is an ally of Iran, its partner in supporting the criminal Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. And though Iraq was not a terrorist stronghold when “shock and awe” toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, it is today.

The Anbar-province city of Fallujah, liberated by American forces in our country’s bloodiest warfare since Vietnam, fell to Al Qaeda earlier this year. As Mark Danner summarized in his ongoing assessment of the war’s origins and legacy for The New York Review of Books, “The Sunni-Shia struggle set in motion by the American invasion of Iraq has become the vortex of a violent political struggle that stretches from South Asia to the Gulf.” Iraq itself has become a one-stop-shopping jihadist laboratory for car bombs, IEDs, and kidnapping scenarios like the one enacted by Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Iraq’s legacy in America goes well beyond the steep toll of casualties, injuries, and billions wasted on corruption and folly. Of the 2.6 million Americans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than half have physical or mental-health problems …

“We live in a world the Iraq War has made,” Danner wrote last December. For the time being, we are defending ourselves against that reality with denial. The public doesn’t want to hear more about the war from anyone, period.

… Over the long term, there may well be a reckoning: Should the aftershocks set off by the Iraq invasion continue to unravel the world, or a large chunk of it, history will look back at the liberal and conservative hawks alike as having flunked the biggest judgment call of their time. They will be seen not just as counterparts to the bipartisan promoters of the Vietnam quagmire but as frivolous sleepwalkers akin to those who a century ago greased the skids for the catastrophe of World War I.

Dreamland: the alternative to learning

(4)  The next round of the Iraq War

Connecting Iraq’s past to the present, and to its future: “Insurgency and War on a Sea of Oil“, Michael Schwartz (Prof Emeritus Sociology, Stony Brook State U), TomDispatch, 24 June 2014.

Form another perspective, the next round of our Iraq War is post-war learning. Steven Metz expects little from this: “What Lessons Will the U.S. Military Learn From Iraq’s Collapse?“, World Politics Review, 25 June 2014. Metz is a defense analyst and the author of Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy (2008).

(5)  For More Information

(a)  Posts About our wars in Iraq, Af-Pak & elsewhere

(b)  About the aftermath of the Iraq War:

  1. Important: What we did we wrong in Iraq – the simple, short version, 9 July 2008
  2. Looking back at how our folly and ignorance fanned the flames in Iraq, 3 June 2012
  3. Time to ask about lessons learned from our wars, a last opportunity to gain something from them, 30 October 2013
  4. The best way to celebrate the 11-year anniversary of our Expedition to Iraq, 18 March 2014
  5. Choose to follow those who were right about our wars, or those who were wrong, 17 June 2014
  6. After 13 years of failed wars, do we know our warmongers?, 20 June 2014


Lessons learned tombstone



9 thoughts on “Iraq gives us another opportunity to confront our mistakes, and learn from them”

  1. A tragic aspect to this is that the juggernaut which is our Military Industrial Complex gives a *lot* of people in DC and elsewhere — inside the government, the military, the corporations, the media, the think tanks, and the political lobbies — a lot of reasons (or at least excuses) to avoid learning from their mistakes. Of course, in the end, a lot of these reasons (or excuses) boil down into dollar signs. As a quote attributed to Upton Sinclair states, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

    When the conservatives say that government doesn’t create jobs, they’re either uninformed or lying…because at this time, the world’s largest organization (either public or private) in terms of number of employees isthe United States Department of Defense (and this probably doesn’t include all the subcontractors and other people who owe their livelihood at least in part to the defense industry). The plain and simple truth is that there are a lot of people out there who find our interference in the affairs of other countries to be very profitable.

    The documentary “Why We Fight” makes a plausible argument for the idea that most if not all of our problems in the Middle East over the last thirty years are an indirect result of Operation Ajax. When the United States offered refuge to the deposed Shah in 1979, fears that the US might attempt to reinstate him in Iran as they had done in 1953 triggered the hostage crisis. This later on prompted the US to offer support to Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran during the 80’s — however, it is thought that this support gave Hussein motivation to sustain his efforts almost to the point of bankrupting Iraq and that this led to his decision to invade Kuwait (triggering the first Gulf War). Stationing US troops in Saudi Arabia upset another person who had previously fought against another state we considered an enemy — Osama bin Laden, who we had supported along with the other mujadhideen in Afghanistan fighting the Soviets (many of whom later became part of the Taliban). Osama bin Laden became the focal point for al-Qaeda…and so on, and so on. So it isn’t just the fact that our short-sighted penny-wisdom generates the pound-foolisness of “blowback” — we’re generating a self-perpetuating cycle in which the efforts to resolve a previous problem create another problem which will need to be resolved in turn and create yet another problem. It’s almost enough to make a person wonder if there might not be some degree of intent behind, even if only at an unconscious level, so that we can continue justifying all the defense spending — especially once the Cold War ended.

    I feel it important to mention that one of the factors which a lot of people such as Woodward apparently still fail to take into account about the War In Iraq is the fact that several high-ranking members of the Bush administration were also charter members of Project for a New American Century (PNAC) — a neoconservative think tank which was agitating for regime change in Iraq while Bill Clinton was still in office. Project for a New American Century is no more, but the Internet Archive still retains copies of the organization’s former website. When you look at the Statement of Principles signed in June of 1997 ( and read the list of people who signed it, more than a few names jump out immediately:

    Elliott Abrams — later became Special Assistant to the President during George W. Bush’s first term.

    Jeb Bush — brother of George W. Bush (and governor of the state which decided the 2000 election that put Bush into office)

    Dick Cheney — later become Vice President for George W.. Bush

    Aaron Friederg — later became Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs under Vice President Cheney

    Zalmay Khalizad — later become Special Envoy to Afghanistan under George W. Bush, later US Ambassador to Afghanistan and US Ambassador to Iraq

    I. Lewis Libby — later became chief of staff for Vice President Cheney

    Peter W. Rodman — later became Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs under George W. Bush

    Donald Rumsfeld — later became Secetary of Defense under George W. Bush

    Paul Wolfowitz — later became Deputy Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush

    With so many members of PNAC in the Bush administration, is it really any wonder that 9-11 became a convenient justification for the Iraq invasion — especially when a white paper entitled “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” published by PNAC in 2000 stated that a “new Pearl Harbor” would provide the US with an incentive to develop a stronger military presence globally????? It should not be a surprise at all to anyone who’s not afraid to connect the dots…

  2. Who, up until roughly the middle of this year, was fighting with, and defeating, ISIS?

    The Assad regime and Hezbollah.

    Who was supporting the opposition to Assad?

  3. Actually, our blunders in the Middle East — many of which have been at least partly motivated by our desire to protect our petroleum interests (especially as a country which is virtually addicted to the stuff) — would seem to be an argument supporting the development of alternate (and if possible renewable) energy resources since this would enable us to leave the region to its own devices.

    A lot of the people in that area are not angry at us because “they hate us for our freedoms.” What they hate is the self-serving hypocrisy of our foreign policy which prompts us to agitate for regime change in certain countries — usually countries which have oil (such as Iraq and Iran) or which would potentially make it easier to access the oil (Syria) — while choosing to turn a blind eye to others. They hate the way in which we frequently accuse the governments of the countries where we want regime change of human rights violations as a justification for our interference and choose (a little too conveniently) to overlook the human rights violations which have taken place in other countries which either have no oil or which have oil but which we consider an ally (mainly Saudi Arabia)…no matter how uneasy or reluctant that alliance might be.

    The same kind of hypocrisy was evident during Bush’s first term in office when the US chose to make nice with Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan (a brutal dictator who according to the United Nations practices widespread abuses including the use of torture) so that we could use an airbase there for the War in Afghanistan.

    While many people in the Middle East might not be quite as well-educated as those in the West, that doesn’t mean they must be stupid (contrary to what some people prefer to think and would have us believe). When people in the Middle East see the US railing against one brutal and corrupt dictator and talking about “democracy” and “freedom” while voluntarily allying itself with other brutal and/or corrupt dictators, then they’re going to call our behavior what it is — complete BS — and only people who are blinded by American exceptionalism (AKA nationalism) would refuse to realize that they have a point.

  4. Stranger in a Strange Land

    Actually, the war in Iraq, as has been the case with most all US military ventures since at least WWI (and perhaps even well before that one), have been been overwhelmingly successful when you understand what their real objectives are…

    1) Make a s**tload of money for those whi are really in charge of the country (i.e., the 1%ers), and at the same

    2) Keep the majority of the population subservient and in step with the program (i.e., can’t question the military-industrial when there is a big bad enemy out there somewhere threatening the country).

    1. Stranger,

      Unfortunately much of US military history is, as you point out, one of oppression for profit. Such as the Cavalry fighting Native Americans and the US Marines’ expeditions to Latin America. Many of us had hoped that WWII marked a break with that past. But Bush Jr used 9-11 to put America on a path to the past, in this as in so many other things.

  5. Read page 31 and rest:
    How to Evolve an Exit Strategy From America’s Foreign Policy Shambles — The Polk Report
    Strategy for Iraq, Syria, and the Region
    “We win each battle, but the battles keep happening. And to our chagrin, we don’t seem to be winning the wars. By almost any criterion, we are less ‘victorious’ today than half a century ago.”

    1. John,

      Your comment is a two-fer, two things I find of great interest.

      The “insanity” quote is fascinating, in both its origin and the way we use it. See here for details.

      The Future of Iraq project is a fascinating history. Bush Jr’s was offered a thoroughly researched, brilliantly reasoned plan for the occupation of Iraq. Instead they choose the path of ignorant madness. This choice defines our era, imo. It’s what we are, how we do.

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