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NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

The Mega-Lesson of Iraq



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Earlier this week, Michael Gordon, writing in Foreign Policy, established that during the Bush administration’s October 2006 deliberations over the way forward in Iraq, Meghan O’Sullivan was one of the leading advocates of what came to be known as the surge strategy:

“Let’s go around the table and focus on Condi’s key question,” Hadley said. “Can this government overcome narrow sectarian interests? Is there room for compromise?”

Meghan O’ Sullivan, the deputy national security advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan, answered with an emphatic “yes.” Iraq, she argued, could overcome its sectarian differences, but Maliki’s government would not be able to rise above its sectarian “impulses” unless the United States did more to improve security and thus showed that a multi-sectarian Iraq was possible.

Rice challenged the argument: “With 140,000 troops, how can they doubt our level of commitment?” she asked.

“We see this as a huge commitment,” O’Sullivan responded. “But they see that we are not doing enough to provide security. The point is that the Iraqis are not predetermined to choose the sectarian piece every time.”

O’Sullivan’s chief allies were Peter Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who was serving at the time on the NSC staff, and Stephen Hadley, the national security advisor. And so I’ve been reading O’Sullivan and Feaver with great interest this week, the tenth anniversary of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).

O’Sullivan has offered what she acknowledges is a very preliminary assessment of whether or not OIF was a mission worth undertaking in The American Interest, and summarized in Bloomberg View. In the course of doing so, she goes beyond the caricatures of controversial decisions on disbanding the Iraqi military, the de-Ba’athification of the civil service, etc., to explain the reasoning behind them; she offers detailed thoughts on how decisions surrounding the early stages of Iraq’s democratization process shape its current political environment; and she emphasizes the central importance of security as a precondition for political progress. 

I also appreciated O’Sullivan’s discussion of the counterfactual:

Some may imagine that, in the absence of the invasion of Iraq, the Middle East today would look much as it did in 2002: mostly stagnant and repressed, but more or less stable. There are, however, reasons to doubt this scenario, particularly when we consider Iran. Were Hussein still in power, Iran would probably be more quiescent in the region. But Iran’s nuclear ambitions would probably be even more intense than they are today. Hussein would have wriggled free from sanctions many years ago, reaped large windfalls from the high oil prices of the mid-2000s and, consistent with the findings of the Kay Report, continued the pursuit of the weapons that had eluded him by 2003. It is at least possible that Hussein would now have nuclear weapons. At best, Iran under the Islamic Republic and Iraq under Hussein would be locked in a race for a nuclear weapon, making the Gulf arguably the most dangerous region of the world.

Another factor about which we have scant new information is the opportunity costs of a decade of American attention and effort focused on Iraq and the political capital spent getting others to support U.S. endeavors there. These costs are hard to quantify, but certainly are significant. The U.S. might have paid more attention to the rise of China and shoring up its Asian allies, something to which it has turned belatedly. Or the U.S. might have concentrated more on its own hemisphere, helping it better integrate and meet its own energy needs.

One place where the outcome would probably not be different, however, is Afghanistan. Many suggest that the war in Iraq came at the expense of success in Afghanistan, although this claim doesn’t stand up well under scrutiny. [Emphasis added]

My guess is that this passage will prompt heated objections, with its implication is that in the absence of OIF, the Gulf would be a substantially more dangerous region. But O’Sullivan is making a modest and appropriately tentative suggestion. 

O’Sullivan’s most important point is that we risk repeating one of the central failures of the post-Vietnam era, i.e., in our desire to avoid fighting such a war again, we will fail to actually institutionalize the lessons of the Iraq conflict:

Our collective failure to learn lessons from Iraq might stem from a sense that helping Iraqis emerge from their trauma under Saddam and rebuild their country was just too hard all around. Whatever the individual strategic, operational or tactical lessons, many have concluded that the mega-lesson is that such endeavors are simply beyond either the abilities or the inclinations of the United States. This may be true, but it still matters whether the difficulties of the past decade were inherent to the task at hand or were mainly the product of suboptimal policy choices and implementation. To the extent that the latter is true, we can imagine doing better in other settings if need be. If the former is true, the scope for learning and improvement is far more limited. We owe it to ourselves to discover which it is. [Emphasis added]

Feaver, meanwhile, has written two posts on the anniversary of OIF, the first of which addresses various myths surrounding the origins of OIF and the second of which identifies the most potent critiques of the Bush administration’s handling of the war and the most pertinent ongoing debates. One of the points he raises is particularly salient to the current U.S. foreign policy debate over the civil war in Syria:

Is chaos caused by action harder to manage than chaos caused by inaction? One important aspect of the neoconservative argument regarding Iraq was the claim that it would be easier to influence events in Iraq if we took decisive action than if we delayed while threats gathered. It turned out that Iraq was far more difficult to manage than war-supporters believed it would be. However, we now are conducting something of a test-case of the opposite side of the proposition. The Obama Administration has studiously avoided decisive action on Syria and the result is a downward security trajectory in Syria that looks very much like the problems that arose in Iraq. There is a bloody sectarian civil war, radical AQ-sympathizers are growing in power, Iran has increased its influence, the stability of the region is threatened, and the United States has lost much credibility in the eyes of regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, not to mention inspiring resentment among the Syrian people. The United States may not bear as much moral responsibility in Syria since it did not invade and topple Assad, but will it avoid political responsibility for managing the consequences if Syria explodes/implodes, as seems likely? And if we face that worst-case scenario, will the chaos produced by post-collapse Syria be any easier to manage than the chaos produced by post-invasion Iraq? [Emphasis added]

Among conservatives and liberals, there is a desire to “turn the page” on Iraq and Afghanistan, and to ease the burden of fiscal consolidation by rapidly reducing defense expenditures. Having long believed that we need to reform how we allocate resources in the national security space, particularly human capital, I’m not unsympathetic. But I worry that we’re lurching too far and too fast in the direction of assuming that a strategic retrenchment will be free of problematic consequences. One huge problem facing Republicans and conservatives, however, is that there has never been a less propitious time to make the case for maintaining U.S. global security commitments, even as doing so becomes more challenging due to a stagnant economy, a skills deficit, and the rise of asymmetrical warfare. 



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