So President Obama will tonight declare that the US war in Iraq has come to an end - more than 7 years after George Bush confidently declared "mission accomplished" and the end of US combat operations. Obama's words will, hopefully, close the chapter on what must be considered one of the most disastrous military conflicts in the history of US foreign policy.
As has been long chronicled here at DA, the toll of the war has been steep: more than a trillion dollars in direct and indirect costs to the United States, enormous repetitional damage to America's image in the world and attention diverted from other more important and solvable domestic and international challenges. Above all, there is the human toll and the more than 4,000 American soldiers killed and tens of thousands wounded both physically and psychologically. For Iraqis, the costs have been far more severe: an estimated 100,000 Iraqis have died in violence since March 2003 and millions more have seen their lives disrupted and dislodged. Even today, while terrorist and sectarian violence has declined it remains a frightening fact of life for ordinary Iraqis. While the invasion of Iraq has been a disaster for the United States, for the Iraqi people it has been a calamity of unparalleled proportions.
Matt Duss over at Wonk Room has more on this here.
Not surprisingly, most Americans have come to the determination that the war in Iraq was a terrible mistake. For policymakers and national security analysts one would imagine they would take away from the war a recognition that avoiding the strategic mistakes that led to the war must be paramount.
But of course that has not been the case. Among policymakers and the uniformed military the lessons derived from this conflict have been focused on on a far different set of conclusions: the failure of military tactics. As the argument often goes, the US armed forces were hamstrung by a lack of resources and manpower utilized, a mishandled post-war military occupation and, in particular, a failure to more effectively utilize counter-insurgency COIN tactics.
Indeed, counter-insurgency advocates have used the supposed "success" of COIN tactics in 2007 and 2008 in stabilizing Iraq (which coincided with a surge of 30,000 troops) to assert that the military "gets" COIN and can ably transfer the lessons learned in Iraq to other theaters of war - like Afghanistan
But this is a dubious and dangerous narrative. First, it tends to place agency for stabilization in Iraq on the shoulders of the US army and not the Iraqi people themselves. While the surge and COIN tactics effectively coincided with changes already occurring in Iraq, it is highly misleading to argue that a change in US tactics saved the day. Indeed, had the US adopted counter-insurgency tactics two years earlier - at the height of horrific sectarian cleansing in which an estimated 3,000 Iraqis were being killed a month - does anyone really think it would have "worked" then.
Second, to argue that the surge saved the day is akin to congratulate oneself for closing the barn door long after the horse has escaped and the barn has burned to the ground. Yes, Iraq stabilized in 2007 and 2008, but what matters more then what happened at the end of the war is what happened at the beginning.
Indeed, a focus on military tactics glosses over what should be the incontestable lesson to be derived from the war in Iraq - that the US must, at all costs, avoid fighting any similar sort of war in the future. The central problem with the Iraq War is not how the United States chose to fight it, but rather that the United States chose to fight it at all.
The insistence that there was a “right way” to invade and occupy Iraq is perhaps an issue of importance for military tacticians, but for policymakers in Congress and the executive branch it is a distraction from focusing on the disastrous strategic judgments that led America down the path to war - virtually all of which were made before one US soldier stepped foot into Iraq.
These include the rosy assumptions that American troops would be welcomed by a already fractured and ethnically divided Iraqi society as "liberators"; the failure to consider worst case scenarios or the potential consequences of military invasion; the lack of a clear political objective for the conflict; the notion that America could go it alone in Iraq without strong support of key Allies and the American people; and perhaps above all an overestimation of US military prowess in nation-building and the political will among Americans to see such a fight through to the end. The war in Iraq ignored the fundamental Clausewitzian idea that "No one starts a war -- or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so -- without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war, and how he intends to conduct it."
What unites all these mistakes is not a failure of tactics - but a failure to address the strategic question of what was the US national interest vis-a-vis Iraq and whether other diplomatic or more limited military force packages would have been effective at advancing those interests. A war fought to intimidate future enemies via the use of American military power has ended up having the exact opposite effect - demonstrating the inherent limitations of US power.
At virtually no point in pre-war planning did the Bush Administration consider other measures to invasion and occupation of Iraq - and among Democrats and the national security community not nearly enough effort was expended in offering alternatives to war.
The historical record suggests that the Bush Administration had no interest in debating these issues at the time - and in fact when to great lengths to obscure them during pre-war planning. But for future policymakers the importance of considering other means of judging and advancing US interests - and weighing alternatives to the use of force - should be the most important takeaway from the war in Iraq.
Yet far too little of the public dialogue about Iraq has addressed this essential question: it's a phenomenon being repeated in Afghanistan where last year's Presidential review focused not on escalation vs. de-escalation, but basically accepted the latter as a fait accompli. The notion, oft expressed by Barack Obama on the campaign trail, that the US must devote more resources to the "good fight" in Iraq has revolved largely around a singular element and tool of American power - it's armed forces.
The Afghanistan debate has dwelled on the issue of military tactics (counter-insurgency vs. counter-terrorism) and the behavior of the US military in the latter half of the war; rather than the misjudgments made at the beginning of war, namely whether the US military could actually achieve the ambitious goals of political leaders - or even if the national interest demanded it.
These are the precisely the sort of questions that should define the use of American military power - and the war in Iraq provides a searing example as to why.
If there is one lesson that President Obama, members of Congress and the American people should keep in mind, as the last US combat troops leave Iraq - it is that America must never make the same mistake again.