The Real Lesson Of Iraq - We Never Learn
Posted by Michael Cohen
A couple of days ago President Obama gave a speech about the Iraq War that has led to some soul searching on the meaning of that conflict. Over at Time Magazine, Joe Klein declared the lesson of the Iraq War is that "We should never go to war unless we have been attacked or are under direct, immediate threat of attack. Never. And never again." I'm not sure I buy that notion - it seems a bit too absolute. And as Jon Chait points out if applied through history would have prevented the US from intervening militarily in places where we probably should have (WWI, WW2, Korea, the Iraq War to name a few). But I do sympathize with the sentiment.
There haven't been many examples lately of people learning from their mistakes, but the invasion of Iraq appears to be a mistake from which some lessons have been learned. It's difficult to imagine America returning to fantasies of easy conquest and democracy-building anytime in the next few decades, anywhere in the world.
Clearly Matt is not a regular reader of democracyarsenal! In fact, we are at this exact moment doing the specific thing that Matt thinks we should never, and will never, do again - deluding ourselves into believing that we can effectively engage in nation building in far-flung corners of the world like Afghanistan. The lessons that the military - and its cheerleaders in the punditocracy - have taken from Iraq is not "let's never do that again" but instead, let's do it better the next time. And of course that next time is now Afghanistan.
Indeed, the entire counter-insurgency mission in Iraq was formulated around the idea that the US had "figured out" how to fight counter-insurgencies and that the lessons of what worked in Iraq could be applied to the Hindu Kush. The same delusion and hubris that convinced America it could "win" in Iraq and that its interests were at stake there is what is driving our escalation in Afghanistan today.
Of course, predictions like Matt's are nothing new - after Vietnam the US had clearly "learned" the lesson that fighting overseas wars with uncertain objectives, lack of popular and international support support and less than overwhelming military superiority was a bad idea. In fact we created a whole new military doctrine (Weinberger/Powell) to mitigate against another Vietnam. And yet here we are . . again, making the same mistakes and misjudgments that we made, albeit on a larger scale, 45 years ago.
Steinglass even doubles down on the "lessons learned' argument noting the work of the Sustainable Defense Task Force and their plan for a trillion dollars in defense spending cuts - and suggests that this represents "public stirrings" of support for a small defense budget. Apparently Matt missed this "bipartisan report" from the QDR Independent Panel, which suggests we need more not less money for the nation's defenses. I know I too am shocked that a report of prominent DC-based national security experts recommends more defense spending. Who could have seen that one coming? And in the end whose recommendations do you think will end up having more currency in Washington?
I would really like to believe that Matt Steinglass is on to something here, but the simple reality is that for many years now the American Way of War is that we either learn the wrong lessons from the wars we fight or we forget the right ones. Afghanistan is our current example - something tells me there will be others.