Commentary

Avoiding Bogus Lessons from the Iraq War

Bush administration leaders already seem to be drawing several lessons from the Iraq conflict. Unfortunately, many of those lessons are erroneous. If the United States bases its foreign policy on those bogus lessons, the outcome could be extremely unpleasant.

Bogus lesson 1: The relatively easy military victory means that the occupation of Iraq should go equally well.

The administration and its supporters place great stock in the scenes of Iraqis in Baghdad and elsewhere welcoming U.S. troops as liberators. But that initial reaction does not solve the numerous underlying religious, ethnic, and ideological tensions in that society that could make the occupation a frustrating and dangerous enterprise.

Iraq is an inherently fragile, artificial entity that the British cobbled together after World War I from three very different provinces of the defunct Ottoman Empire. Washington has pledged to preserve the unity of the country, but that could prove extremely challenging. The Kurds in the north clearly want so much political autonomy that they would have a de facto independent state — a development that could fragment the country and deeply alarm neighboring Turkey. The Shia Muslims in the south may also want a state of their own and may gravitate toward radical Islam to implement their political agenda.

Given the potential for turbulence, the U.S.-British occupation of Iraq is likely to resemble the U.S. experience in Lebanon in the early 1980s, the British experience in Northern Ireland from the early 1970s to the late 1990s, or the current Israeli experience on the West Bank. The emergence of suicide bombers during the war is not a reassuring development. At the very least, the occupation is likely to prove more difficult than the military conquest.

Bogus lesson 2: Given the ease of the military triumph in Iraq, the United States should consider applying the same treatment to Syria, Iran, North Korea, and other rogue states.

The hawks need to put their “triumphalism” on a leash. Just because the Iraqis exhibited tactical incompetence by deploying many of their forces in the open desert where they could be devastated by U.S. air power instead of forcing the coalition troops into engaging in extensive urban warfare, does not mean that a future adversary will make the same blunder. Moreover, Iran and North Korea are far more formidable adversaries than Iraq could ever hope to be. Indeed, U.S. intelligence sources believe that North Korea already has a small number of nuclear weapons, and Iran is likely to have some in the near future.

There is no doubt that the United States would ultimately prevail in such struggles. But the question is at what cost? Engaging in a series of wars against unfriendly countries may be emotionally appealing to hawkish elements, but it is the foreign policy equivalent of Russian roulette. It is possible to win at that game a number of times. But sooner or later the hammer will come down on a live round.

Bogus lesson 3: The angry “Arab street” is a myth.

That assumption misconstrues the nature of the problem. The danger is not so much that angry Muslim mobs will instantly sweep friendly governments from power. The principal danger is that the United States has so alienated Muslim populations that thousands of new recruits will gravitate to Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, thus expanding the threat to the United States. Another danger is that public anger at the United States will reach the point that even those governments that might want to have close relations with Washington will find it politically impossible to do so.

One should also keep in mind the possible time lag. The U.S. victory in the first Persian Gulf War did not immediately translate into terrorist retaliation. It was more than two years before the World Trade Center bombing, more than seven years before the bombings of the embassies in East Africa, and more than a decade before 9-11. The retaliation was slow in coming, but come it did.

Bogus lesson 4: The United States is now so powerful that it does not need to care what other powers say or do.

Some hawks even want to engage in diplomatic and economic retaliation against France, Germany, and Russia for daring to oppose U.S. policy toward Iraq. That would be a profound mistake. America needs the cooperation of those and other countries for a multitude of enterprises. For example, we want them to devote great energy to eradicating Al Qaeda cells and starving the organization of funds. We want Russia to cut off nuclear technology exports to Iran and to help resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis.

Those countries are far less likely to be cooperative if the United States tries to bully them. Americans need to understand just how unpopular the Iraq war was in the rest of the world. If Washington does not change its behavior, the United States could end up being an isolated and hated country with other major states conspiring to undermine its power. That might not matter a great deal in the short run, but over the coming decades such a development would be disastrous.

It is imperative that the administration and the American public learn lessons from the Iraq war. But it is equally imperative that they are not the wrong lessons.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and is the author or editor of 15 books on international affairs including “Peace & Freedom: Foreign Policy for a Constitutional Republic.”