What are lessons from Iraq?
Recent news about how Republican Presidential candidate Jeb Bush flubbed his answer to would he have gone to war in Iraq has filled political headlines for a week as Bush’s counterpart candidates respond to the same question in different ways.
But frankly it is the wrong question to ask. The question every candidate should answer is “What did we learn from Iraq?” For the lessons of Iraq should allow us to prevent the many mistakes of that failed war.
And, yes, Iraq was in every way a failed war. We failed on the purpose, which was to protect U.S. security against Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. There were no WMDs, so we clearly failed on purpose.
We also failed miserably on strategy with far too few initial troops; disbanding the government and the military; isolating the Sunni religious population; killing and dislocating hundreds of thousands of the Iraqi people; we caused terrible Infrastructure destruction; we wasted trillions of dollars in costs not assumed by the planners; we alienated the Iraqi people; we tortured and abused our enemies; and we shattered world opinion of the United States.
We lost over 4,500 brave young Americans and crippled thousands more who will suffer for their duty for the rest of their lives, a responsibility we bear for authorizing what was, without question, a war of choice advanced by an administration bent on attacking Iraq.
We glorified the surge, marked by befriending Iraqi civil and religious leaders and paying them for their support, but failed in the long term to gain the support of Iraqi Sunni leaders thus creating what is now known as ISIS. The surge only slowed the inevitable drift into religious warfare in an Iraqi nation constructed from pieces of differing cultures and peoples.
We failed when ascribing these failures to the Obama administration with a meme suggesting Obama’s withdrawal caused Iraq to fail. In truth the withdrawal was on a schedule made by the Bush administration and forced when the Iraqi government and people wanted us out of Iraq.
From all of this what can we, should we, must we, learn to not repeat this costly failure?
First, do not do stupid things like this war of choice ever again, a simple but obvious truth.
Second, terrorism cannot be defeated by traditional warfare. There will never be enough boots for a long enough time to change nation states to our preferences and fighting those who disappear into the very neighborhoods we guard risks American lives too greatly.
Third, while the US military is clearly the superior force on the planet, the military cannot run a country or manage an occupation. Nor should we ask it to do so.
Fourth, the religious underpinnings in the Middle East make this conflict one that can only be resolved by those within the region. At some point the Sunni’s and Shiites must resolve their differences, but likely not for generations.
Fifth, the cost was far too great, debiting our nation too deeply, spending our treasure unwisely. Should we continue to so invest in the Middle East we will impoverish our Infrastructure, slow our investment in research, reduce our ability to compete in education and underserve those in need.
Finally, leadership in the 21st century cannot be America alone. We must demand partners who share the burden of helping peoples seeking justice, avoiding genocide, and protecting individual lives.
America cannot retreat from the world, but we must learn from our mistakes and build upon our values and strengths. And that begins by asking our leaders the tough questions.
Jim Crawford is a retired educator and political enthusiast living here in the Tri-State.