THE FIVE LESSONS
Of the IRAQI WAR
As updated on September 1, 2008
My latest (2008) observations:
- Since I posted a version of this piece in 2007, General David Petraeus (http://www.mnf-iraq.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=23&Itemid=16 ) has essentially rescued the administration from failure in Iraq, a prospect that, in May of 2007, I described as a “jury is out” situation. Reasonable observers now find it difficult to deny that Iraq is a different country than the “thugocracy” ruled by Saddam Hussein of recent memory and that it is behaving very much like the sovereign, quasi-democratic country (with all the attendant warts) that was the object of the whole exercise in the beginning. It is now crystal clear that this democratic experiment in the Middle East will probably survive unless we abandon it.
The new dynamic has begun the undermine the credibility of al Qaeda within the Muslim world and has given the heretofore many hidden Islamic “moderates” to moral courage to poke their heads above their foxholes.
My assertion that “Saddam lied and his people died” has been amply corroborated by subsequent information, for example his own private statements to an interpreter during his trial. Link: http://www.fbi.gov/page2/jan08/piro012808.html .
One can only hope that the next POTUS will be someone for whom these five lessons are already self-evident.
THE FIVE IRAQ WAR LESSONS (SO FAR)
The Powell Doctrine Meets The Real world
Think for a minute about the Powell Doctrine –
Don’t get into a war unless you have overwhelming force – the resources needed to win decisively plus a margin for error – and always have a clear strategy to get out when the time comes.
This is a general officer’s utopian dream for all “wars of choice”. It is brilliant wisdom, but the kind that rarely applies in the real world. All too often, wars are thrust upon us.
Imagine coming to FDR after the destruction of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, and discussing a strategy for getting out of Japan after an unconditional surrender. The atomic bomb was a science fiction fantasy; the US was in the grip of a deep economic depression; and the navy had to be rebuilt, virtually from scratch, while Hitler and Tojo moved decisively to conquer the world.
Before the post-911 “Bush doctrine” was announced – governments that covertly sponsor or harbor terrorists are not diplomatically immune from US military intervention – the mischief makers of the world had grown accustomed to a softer, gentler America.
Saddam himself miscalculated by actually promoting leaks of misinformation that his field commanders had fearsome WMD’s. He was evidently thinking — in his “king of my world” thug-logic — that he could bluff a wounded USA into “pursuing diplomatic options” forever while he bribed his way out of the UN sanctions. Meantime, Libya harbored an A-Bomb development program; Pakistan was covertly selling nuclear bomb technology; and Yemen thought that it could forever escape accountability for looking away while al Qaeda planned to bomb the US Cole.
Why fear the USA? After all, this was the same country where even Ronald Reagan had quietly exited Lebanon after a couple hundred US Marines were killed in their barracks.
After 911, this widespread misperception of American capacity and will had to change. We can argue endlessly whether Iraq was the right place at the right time to demonstrate that the Bush doctrine had teeth, but an additional demonstration (more than the obvious invasion of Afghanistan) was clearly necessary. Make no mistake here: Had Bill Clinton (or Hillary, for that matter) been in office, the core reality (We’ve got to change the “America is irresolute and weak” perception) would have driven our national security stance in 2001, 2002, and 2003.
A Bush Bungle?
Was the Iraq conquest-liberation-pacification effort bungled – or just temporarily flawed? That depends on the answer to three questions, to which we can provide provisional answers and historians will eventually settle that matter long after we actually need to absorb the lessons:
(1) Was the quick removal of Saddam by military force an appropriate and necessary demonstration that the Bush Doctrine had teeth?
At the end of the Clinton administration, the president, John Kerry, most other democrats and republicans and indeed the entire congress had agreed that regime change in Iraq was official American policy, and that Iraq controlled stockpiles of dangerous WMD’s.
Even in 2004-06, a plurality experts agreed that it was appropriate to have deposed Saddam. Part of the fallout from the successful invasion was then apparent: Libya had surrendered its a-bomb program. North Korea’s dictator was in shock. Pakistan had given up its covert nuclear proliferation efforts. With the exception of Iran, the region’s leaders had moved sharply in the direction of cooperation with the US in the efforts to disrupt terrorist networks. Even Syria had climbed into a foxhole.
(2) Was the attempt to inaugurate a democratic regime in Iraq an ill advised effort, doomed to failure?
That was not the assessment in 2004-5. Remember the purple, “I have voted” fingers? And it is not the assessment for now, either, now that the elected Iraqi government is functioning.
(3) Given the current turnaround in Iraq, can the overall effort can be said to have been “worth it”?
No one knows yet, but it looks vastly more promising than it did 18 months ago.
It is possible to identify the snapshot of a dark period in any major war in our history when the pessimists hold sway and eventual victory seems out of the question. There were such moments in WWII when the battles in Pacific theater seemed desperate, and there were pre-D Day moments when the prospect of actually invading Europe seemed like deadly folly. Lincoln almost lost the Civil War. And (as the memoirs and published comments of some North Vietnamese generals have recently revealed) the US almost won the Vietnam War.
At least this much is now clear:
(a) Saddam’s regime has been replaced by a nascent quasi democracy.
(b) The new government – with the help of US forces – has finally achieved a degree of stability and popular buy-in.
(c) Al Qaeda’s efforts in Iraq have been discredited with all major population groups in country and its military capability has been decimated.
(d) The Iraqi government has begum to act confidently as a sovereign – noting that the push for an eventual American exit is a clear sign of success.
(e) The new government shows no inclination whatsoever to support terrorism or invade its neighbors and appears capable of acting independently from its Iranian neighbor.
(f) The foregoing gains are reversible if the American presence is seen by outsiders as impotent.
I promised Five Lessons. They are both domestic-political and geopolitical in nature:
- When you fly something under the radar it always surfaces at an awkward time.
I still can’t forget my reaction to the last minute disclosure, made by the democrats when Gore was behind in the polls in the 1999 election, that “W” had a youthful conviction for driving under the influence. “What the hell were the Bush handlers thinking?” How could any advisor have not known? Obviously this damaging information was going to be released by the democrats at the most damaging moment possible. No doubt, I thought, the “drinking and carousing” problem was debated within the campaign earlier. Surely someone had argued for disclosure.
What the public got was a vague fog ball about “W” having turned a corner in his life and moved into a new adult chapter. This was an ill advised attempt to have it both ways: Irwas the disclosure/non-disclosure that flies the bad news just under the radar.
I remembered this during the critique of the pre-Iraq invasion run up. This was déjà vu all over again.
Recall that there were a number of important justifications for the Iraqi invasion, among them these:
(1) Saddam had tried to assassinate a former American president, arguably an act of war, the act having been redressed half-heartedly by President Clinton via an ineffectual missile strike. [This was very awkward for Bush the younger since Dad was the target.]
(2) Gulf War I was not officially over (having been suspended at the gates of Baghdad with a truce). Because Saddam was in blatant violation of the terms of the cessation of hostilities, resumption of the War was well within international norms, UN “permission” or no.
(3) Saddam was in calculated and deliberate violation of several Security Council resolutions.
(4) Iraq was complicit in the first World Trade Center bombing and because it had provided low level assistance to the 2001 hijackers (they had Iraqi travel documents), only a fool would believe that Iraq intelligence did not have foreknowledge of the forthcoming 9-11 attack on the US.
(5) Iraq was providing support, covert and otherwise, for terrorists in direct violation of the Bush doctrine. Because of Saddam’s brutality and general unpopularity, Iraq was the “lowest hanging fruit” for a demonstration attack.
(6) Promotion of a new democratic regime in the region was a smart countermove to the jihad under all the circumstances. Iraq was plausible because of its educated population and strong (pre-Saddam) civil tradition. [The tragedy here is that, for this to have worked well, the invasion should have been years earlier, before Saddam had ruined the country’s civil infrastructure.]
(7) Saddam hadn’t accounted for his WMD’s, the ones that the UN and others knew he had — before he kicked all of the inspectors out. Moreover, Saddam had actually used poison gas to kill thousands of Kurds. At the time of Gulf War I, Iraq was well into the development of an A-Bomb program. The intelligence at the time of the latest invasion was imperfect, but all the pointers told the CIA, Israel’s Mossad, the French, British and German intelligence communities that Saddam’s Iraq was back on the WMD warpath. [As we now know, Saddam continued to cultivate the notion that he controlled a vast stockpile of WMD’s in order to intimidate the US while he gamed the UN sanctions and eventually broke out of them and restarted his weapons programs in earnest.]
But I believe that this there was a different core animating reason for the invasion:
A robust demonstration of the Bush doctrine that states that give support, aid and comfort to terrorists are going to be punished.
The demonstration argument was flown under the radar and the WMD argument was flagged and flogged because of the need to bring the most liberal democrats on board – especially the military ambivalent crowd for whom a “power demonstration war” would have been seen as “immoral and unnecessary”.
Proof of the vitality and appropriateness of an American post-911 power-purpose demonstration was later demonstrated by events: Libya’s “voluntary” dismantlement of its nuclear bomb program, internal panic in North Korea’s government (Kim Jong-il went into temporary hiding) and brave democratic-minded moderate Muslims stuck their figurative necks out for a time. Of course, once the American effort began to lose vigor, military support and robust implementation in Iraq (all early failures of the Bush Administration), the positive ripple effects of the Demonstration (that peaked in 06) began to come unraveled.
LESSON: That which flies under the radar always surfaces.
- When there are uncertainties – and there always are uncertainties – play them, don’t hide them.
Think about it. President Bush might easily have said:
“We need to go in and take out this dangerous regime. I can’t promise (because we can’t know for sure) what deadly weapons we will be able to find destroy, but I can promise that we will eliminate the dangerous leaders. I can’t promise (because wars are unpredictable) whether this is to be a short or a long struggle, whether casualties will be low or high, whether we will have enough forces to finish what we have started, or whether I will have to ask the Congress and American people for more resources. But I can promise that, after the attacks of September 11, America will prevail over her enemies.”
- Make the selfish part of the effort clear as a bell and don’t apologize.
The president might have told us:
“We are in this battle as part of the larger war to defend America, our friends and allies, and protect our vital interests against terrorists and terror sponsoring states. This is our first priority. American interests come first.”
- Make the unselfish part of the effort clear as a bell and don’t expect gratitude.
The president could have said:
“We are a good and generous people. It is both in our strategic interests and the right and moral thing to do to support a form of democratic government where there once was a brutal tyranny. We promise our best efforts to make that happen. We expect cooperation but not gratitude. Ultimately, Iraq’s destiny as a country is for the Iraqis to decide. We will leave when we have to leave, hoping but not guaranteeing that we have planted the flag of freedom in the Middle East. But we will not leave behind an armed enemy because America’s interests come first.”
- War is a ruthless, imperfect exercise in coercion through blunt force. Let the people know what we want our enemies to know: We’re not afraid to hurt some innocent people if that’s what it takes.
A really gutsy president would have said:
“At the end of the day, there will be unwanted pain, death and destruction. This is so in all wars. It was so in our Civil War, the War against the Nazi conquerors of Europe, even in our original war for independence. It will always be so. War takes innocent lives. We solemnly accept our responsibilities. We will do our best to minimize the harm to innocent non-combatants but make no mistake:
“We intend to win because we must. Be forewarned. On September 11th, 2001, someone miscalculated. Someone thought this country was afraid to take and inflict casualties to defend our freedom and that of our friends.
“They could not be more wrong.”
Why Identify Lessons Now?
The Radical Jihad against the West, America and Western-friendly governments in the Middle East has not ended. The Radical Jihad seeks to transform the Middle East into a unified Imperial Islamic Power, protected by a nuclear shield and in a constant state of war with the infidel world.
Whether that ugly scenario is averted in four years or twenty, there is no acceptable, realistic option short of a counter-transformation: A variegated, largely democratic Middle East, mostly at peace with the West, of which the transformation of Iraq is just the first move on the international chessboard.
When the geopolitical history of the Middle East is written, Iraq will not be the largest, and certainly not the only battle in that larger war. We need to absorb all of the available lessons because sometime in the next five years (and this is not under the radar) we will be at war again. The only question is whether that war will be small or large, successful or unsuccessful. Sadly, this will take place at least once more… even under an Obama administration.
The logic is straightforward. Iran intends to acquire a deliverable nuclear weapons system. Unless that rogue regime can be deterred via sanctions (and don’t bet on it) one of two things will follow as sure as night follows sunset:
(A) There will be military action to preemptively disarm Iran (military action that necessarily involves US forces even if it initially begins with an Israeli strike) and that set of events will be followed by turmoil and further military challenges, or –
(B) There will be a major Middle East war after an emboldened Iran acquires its nuclear capability a war from which no American government, no matter how pacific its policies and inclinations, could remain unengaged.