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Learning the Right Lessons From Iraq


It is our task to learn from the past, revitalize our virtues, and clean up our errors.

This column is part of our series reflecting on the Iraq War, which began ten years ago this week.

Ten years have passed since the fateful day (March 19) when U.S. troops led Coalition forces in invading Iraq to topple a dictator who attacked his neighbors, brazenly supported terrorists (although not al Qaeda), destabilized his region, and even attempted to assassinate a former U.S. president. What lessons can be drawn from America’s war in Iraq, particularly by those of us who supported it?  

First, an important difference exists between America’s vital security interests and the countless interests and grievances of others. In November 2002, Secretary Rumsfeld told reporters, “I can’t tell you if the use of force in Iraq today will last five days, five weeks or five months, but it won’t last any longer than that.” Rumsfeld knew that after liberating the Iraqi people—and assuming the U.S. smashed the bad guys and did nothing dumb, such as dismissing all of Iraq’s governance and security capacity—the Coalition must move aside and let the Iraqi people determine their destiny. The U.S. didn't need to decide to disband the Iraqi state and the Ba’ath Party (including doctors, librarians, and other civil servants), nor did it necessarily have to force Shia, Sunni, and Kurds into a single Iraqi country.

At the time, much discussion ensued about allowing Iraq to dissolve into the original three Ottoman provinces, each with its own majority population (Shia, Sunni, and Kurd). For a variety of policy reasons, this approach was quickly, and perhaps wrongly, dismissed. Moreover, we didn't have to build every school, rebuild Iraq’s oil infrastructure, or sort out the details of Iraqi life, all of which cost the U.S. dearly: over 4,000 U.S. troops dead and $60 billion in reconstruction.  

Second, for ourselves and the world observing us, Americans still have grit. Perhaps Europeans and others around the globe no longer recognize grit as that distinctly American trait of rugged perseverance against the odds. It is that dogged determination that energized George Washington during the Revolution, helped Lincoln, Grant and Sherman win the Civil War, led the U.S. to finish France’s abandoned Panama Canal, helped GIs beat the Germans in two world wars, and sent men to the moon and beyond.

We were told grit evaporated when the Greatest Generation took off their uniforms, when the U.S. refused to fight-to-win in Vietnam, and when we cautiously conceded much of the Third World to the Soviets. Many Democrats, from Carter to Obama, have told us America should expect less, deserves less, and doesn’t have the guts to fight.

But, America was stronger. President Bush decided to not lose in Iraq and his courage—and that of the American military and the citizenry more generally—helped the Coalition snatch victory from defeat and take a more robust approach, albeit a costly one, to victory in Iraq.  

Third, we must expect leaders to count the cost and honestly portray it to the American public. Those of us who voted Republican were outraged that the GOP – when holding the White House and both houses of Congress for six years – did nothing to defray the war’s cost. In fact, they passed a major entitlement straight out of the Democrat’s playbook. Analysts suggest the global war on terrorism, which many of us supported, cost $1 trillion. It is not the price tag but more importantly the use of a credit card to pay for it that is most troubling.  

Finally, the U.S. still has the raw military power necessary for decisive conventional victory. Let this be a lesson to China and other potential adversaries. With all of the talk about Islamist insurgency, counter-terrorism, and counter-insurgency, we seem to forget the U.S. still wields a mighty hammer - the foundation of a posture of deterrence, particularly in the Pacific theater.  For at least the next several decades, Pax Americana will continue to keep the peace in Europe, support the Middle East’s only true democracy, deepen ties to rising democratic powers like India and Brazil, and partner with regional powers like Kenya, Australia, Japan, South Africa and Nigeria.

Like any conflict, the Iraq war underscored some of America’s greatest virtues in the heroism of its military and security personnel. It demonstrated some of America’s great moral attributes, such as profound empathy for suffering civilians and a deep concern to leave the Iraqi people better off than they were under Saddam Hussein. Nonetheless, the war also exposed some of America’s great weaknesses, most notably hubris that we can fix the problems of others and an utter lack of financial self-control. It is our task to learn from the past, revitalize our virtues, and clean up our errors, lest our profligacy undermine our greatness.

Eric Patterson is Dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University and Senior Research Fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs. His most recent book is “Ending Wars Well: Order, Justice  & Conciliation in Post-Conflict” (Yale University Press, 2012).


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