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A Time for Reckoning

Reality has not dealt kindly with the hopes and expectations conjured up to justify Operation Iraqi Freedom. Although the war may not be lost, it cannot be won, at least not as the Bush administration once defined winning. What then are we to make of this experience?

The question may strike some as premature. Whether President Bush (or President Kerry) “stays the course” or cuts American losses, difficult days lie ahead. The bill yet to be levied for this misadventure promises to be steep. More Americans and even larger numbers of Iraqis will lose their lives. Combat operations and the black hole of “nation-building” will consume additional billions of dollars, adding to the ocean of red ink that is the federal budget. Yet even as events wind their way toward what promises to be a deeply unsatisfactory denouement, the argument over what it all means must necessarily be joined. Common sense dictates that we apply to future U.S. policy what we have learned in Iraq, and the future will not wait.

With an eye toward that future—and with no claim that any of what follows qualifies as definitive—herewith a first cut at identifying the war’s operative lessons.

First, ideology makes a poor substitute for strategy. With the invasion of Iraq, it became impossible to deny that in the heady aftermath of the Cold War American grand strategy became uncoupled from reality. Certain that history had spoken and that Americans were uniquely able to interpret its meaning, policymakers both Democratic and Republican uncorked old vials of Wilsonian illusion and breathed deeply. As a consequence, zealotry supplanted calculations of power and interest as a determinant of U.S. policy.

Bill Clinton entertained visions of globalization, creating a world without borders in which all nations would be sure to enjoy the blessings of peace, prosperity, and democracy. George W. Bush topped Clinton, vowing after 9/11 not only to eliminate terror (an impossibility) but also to put an end to evil. But mixing utopianism and politics is a recipe for miscalculation and an invitation to strategic bankruptcy—as the Iraq War has painfully reminded us.

It is the tradition of George Washington rather than the tradition of Woodrow Wilson that best serves American interests. The nation’s first president—and successors like Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Truman, and Eisenhower—understood not only the uses but also the limits of power. That balanced sensibility, anchored to considerations of prudence, has vanished from the current foreign-policy elite. There is an urgent need to restore it.

Second, wars leave loose ends. In a political sense, decisive victory—meaning military success that makes a clean sweep of the complaints giving rise to war in the first place—is a pipe dream.

Operation Iraqi Freedom was supposed to finish the job that Bush’s father had left undone in 1991. Oust Saddam Hussein, the war’s supporters promised, and all sorts of good things were sure to follow. War would transform Iraq into the first Arab democracy, usher the Middle East into an era of lasting peace, and nudge Islam toward moderation and modernity. Today, the Ba’athist regime is gone, but none of the predicted benefits seems likely to materialize. Instead the United States has exchanged the limited burdens of containment for the far more onerous burdens of occupation. We have overthrown a tin-pot dictator posing no immediate threat to the United States and thereby energized and encouraged far more dangerous enemies. Rather than persuading Muslims to see America as liberator and friend, we have cemented our image as Great Satan.

War is like a highly toxic drug: with the cure come side effects. And Iraq reminds us that the side effects can prove worse than the disease.

Third, allies have choices—and will exercise them. Across a decade of hyping the United States as “sole superpower” and “indispensable nation,” too many policymakers persuaded themselves that America’s traditional allies had no alternative but to accede to U.S. “global leadership.” Both the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991 and the Kosovo conflict of 1999 seemed to show that when Washington called, others clamored to board the bandwagon. To opt out was to be left out and left behind: from Washington’s perspective, this was a risk that few “friends” were likely to take.

Iraq demolished such fantasies. Allies are not vassals. When interests diverge sufficiently, “friendship” counts for little. The Iraq experience has, time and again, affirmed this fundamental principle: when “old Europe” chose to sit out the war altogether; when Turkey rejected Washington’s request to allow U.S. troops to cross its territory; when Spanish voters concluded that occupying Iraq was exacerbating rather than reducing the threat of terror. At every step of the way, as key allies stiffed us, the costs borne by the United States have necessarily risen. Even before Iraq, the bonds that once joined what was called “the West” had already (and perhaps inevitably) begun to fray. Thanks to its insistence on preventive war, the Bush administration has hastened the West along the path toward oblivion. Nations whose support we once assumed to be a given now question the acceptability of the Pax Americana and may yet muster the collective will to proffer an alternative. Before launching on more crusades, we have diplomatic fences to mend.

Fourth, Israel’s war is not our war. President Bush’s undifferentiated “global war on terror” has encouraged the government of Ariel Sharon to assert that Israel’s enemies and America’s enemies are one and the same. But they are not. Indeed, Sharon’s misguided effort to crush resistance to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza through brute force serves only to complicate and exacerbate our own problems. Sharon’s policy will not work, and as Israel’s chief supporter we get tagged with much of the blame.

Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute will not itself alleviate Muslim antagonism toward the United States. But absent such a resolution, that antagonism will fester, thereby providing fertile ground for Osama bin Laden and other Islamic radicals to enlist new recruits.

We should not deceive ourselves about the prospects of bringing real peace to the Holy Land. Something like partition is probably the best outcome one can hope for. But brokering and if necessary enforcing such a partition rather than vainly attempting to democratize the Arab world at the point of a sword ought to form the centerpiece of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Further deference to Israeli hardliners like Sharon, who know nothing but force, is contrary to American interests. True friends of the Jewish state will see it as contrary to Israel’s interests as well.

Fifth, “shock and awe” gets you only so far. More than a decade ago, the previous U.S. war against Iraq brought to full flower the American romance with high-tech warfare. Operation Iraqi Freedom has offered the fullest illustration to date of what this new American way of war can and cannot do. On the one hand, it affirmed what we already learned in Desert Storm: U.S. forces will make short work of any conventionally organized and equipped adversary foolish enough to put up a fight.

On the other hand, developments since the fall of Baghdad have also affirmed what we learned in Mogadishu: against a determined insurgent armed with even primitive weapons, air power, stealth, and precision weapons—all the signature capabilities that distinguish the preferred American style of warfare —won’t do the trick. Defeating guerrillas requires something more and something different. The United States military is no closer today to devising a technological solution to the riddle of unconventional war than it was when Vietnam ended in defeat.

Sixth, the margin of U.S. military supremacy is thinner than advertised. Ours is undoubtedly the mightiest military the world has ever seen, with a more than ample inventory of high-performance fighter jets, aircraft carriers, and top-of-the-line nuclear submarines. But our inventory of soldiers and Marines is grossly inadequate—inadequate at least to implement President Bush’s grandiose plans for sprinkling the blessings of liberty throughout the Greater Middle East. Despite the administration’s obdurate insistence to the contrary, the fact is that the United States today has too few soldiers doing too many things.

In just one year, the Iraq morass has brought U.S. ground forces within a hair’s breadth of overstretch. Expedients such as relying on reserves and hiring thousands of mercenaries have not fixed the problem; they embody it. Announced plans to divert troops from Korea to Iraq and to deploy stateside training cadres show just how bare the cupboard has become.

If the United States is intent on playing the role of global hegemon, we need to put more young Americans in uniform—lots more. If as citizens we’re not willing to pay that price, then the Iraq experience should oblige policymakers to scale back their ambitions.

Seventh, the myth of American casualty aversion is just that. The conventional wisdom of the 1990s was that a risk-averse military and a casualty-phobic public constituted major obstacles impeding the effective use of force. For the Clinton administration and its defenders, this became a convenient device for offloading onto others responsibility for American military fecklessness. The onus for the pseudo-campaigns of the decade leading up to 9/11—the zenith coming in 1998 when U.S. Navy cruise missiles demolished an empty pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum—lay not with the commander-in-chief but with foot-dragging generals and fainthearted citizens who lacked the stomach for serious military action.

Historians can debate whether or not the sensitivity to casualties was ever as great as it once appeared. But there is little room for debate that the events of Sept. 11, 2001 swept aside any such constraints. Traditional American ferocity and bloody-mindedness reasserted themselves with a vengeance. All that was needed was competence at the top to harness and direct it. But as the Iraq debacle has made plain, competence remains, as it was in the 1990s, in precariously short supply.

Eighth, so too with the myth of an American genius for spreading democracy. From the very day that U.S. forces entered Baghdad, the officials charged with raising a new Iraq out of the ashes of the old have displayed remarkable ineptitude. However admirable the hard work of those who have risked life and limb to give the Iraqi people a fresh start, the overall effort has misfired.

Far from replicating the success achieved in postwar Germany and Japan after 1945, L. Paul Bremer has managed to reprise the sorry record achieved in places like South Vietnam. If the United States insists that it needs to be in the nation-building business, then it’s time to go back to square one, drawing on the disappointments of Iraq to devise the techniques, create the institutions, and develop the leaders to do better next time out. Or, perhaps more wisely, we might conclude that bringing democracy to the Arab world is akin to making bricks without straw—a trick best left to others.

Ninth, it’s hard to win when you don’t know whom you’re fighting. Much has been made about the blunders in strategic intelligence such as the failure to anticipate 9/11 and the bogus assertions regarding Saddam’s weapons of massive destruction. But the inadequacies of tactical intelligence have been at least as great, if not greater.

In a situation truly without precedent in all of American military history, American forces in Iraq have for more than a year been engaged in a full-fledged shooting war and still do not know whom they are fighting. The reliance on generic terms to describe the “terrorists,” “insurgents,” or “foreign fighters” tells the story. Exactly who is the enemy? How is he organized? Who gives the orders? What are his aims? We don’t know. And as long as we don’t, the enemy will retain the initiative.

In short, the Iraq War shows that the imperative of intelligence reform goes far beyond any problems attributed to the CIA.

Tenth, civil-military relations at the top are broken. The Iraq War has confirmed what had already become evident during the 1990s: the relationship between senior military leaders and the top echelon of civilian officials is dysfunctional. That dysfunction contributes to flawed decisions on crucial issues related to peace and war.

During the Clinton era, the problem was one of a weak commander-in-chief unable or unwilling to assert effective control over the generals. Donald Rumsfeld came into office intent on clearing up any confusion about who is in charge. But the Rumsfeld approach is to treat his principal military advisers with McNamara-like disdain. Those who speak up—like the Army chief of staff who had the temerity to suggest that occupying Iraq might require a considerable number of troops—are rebuked and marginalized.

The point is not to suggest turning war over to the soldiers. Unambiguous civilian control is essential. But effective civil-military interaction demands something more than simply throttling generals. It means incorporating professional military expertise into the debate over basic national security policy. That in turn requires a combination of trust, honesty, mutual respect, and mutual self-restraint that has been absent for many years. This is an intolerable situation that in all likelihood the Department of Defense itself cannot fix. It cries out for serious and sustained congressional attention. As was the case with Vietnam, the debate over the lessons of Iraq promises to be a protracted one. Again as was the case with Vietnam, the temptation to exploit that debate for partisan purposes will be great. But the issue is too important to use as an excuse for bashing neoconservatives, scoring points against President Bush, or luxuriating in the peculiar satisfactions of Schadenfreude. To avoid repeating the errors that got us into this mess, we need to get those lessons right.


Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of international relations at Boston University. His latest book is American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy.

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