Learning the Right Lessons From Iraq

This article appeared in The Courier‐​Journal on March 2, 2008.
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Our nation is learning the wrong lessons from Iraq. Conventional wisdom holds that success there could have been achieved at a reasonable cost with more troops and more cooperation among U.S. government agencies. To those who share these views, Iraq is not an example of what not to do but of how not to do it. The policy recommendations that flow from these lessons aim to reform the national security bureaucracy so that we will get it right the next time. But this establishment view is wrong and dangerous. The Iraq debacle shows that we need a different national security strategy, not merely better tactics and tools to serve the current one.

By insisting that there was a right way to remake Iraq, we ignore the limits on our power that the enterprise has exposed and risk repeating our mistake. Deposing Saddam Hussein was relatively simple, but creating a new state to rule Iraq was beyond our grasp. Maybe the United States can improve its ability to manage occupations, but the principal lesson Iraq teaches is to avoid them.

The conventional explanations for why we have failed to achieve our stated aims in Iraq are poor governmental planning and coordination in preparing for the occupation, and too few troops. These explanations miss a more fundamental point: There are limits to what planning, coordination and troops can accomplish in re‐​inventing foreign states.

Perhaps the most common complaint about the American occupation of Iraq is that it was undermanned. Almost everyone argues that the U.S. should have sent a far larger occupation force — perhaps two to three times larger than the 150,000 it had in Iraq when Baghdad fell. But rotation schedules would have made it difficult, if not impossible, for the U.S. to keep several hundred thousand troops in Iraq for long. What’s more, the insurgency is driven primarily by disagreements among Iraq’s factions about the governance of Iraq and opposition to the American occupation. If 150,000 American troops had little idea how to win the loyalty of Iraq’s Sunnis, there is little reason to believe that another 200,000 would have done much better.

Most critics of the Bush administration’s conduct of the occupation point to two other key decisions — disbanding the army and de‐​Baathification — as missteps that empowered the insurgency.

Conventional wisdom now says that the errors in judgment can be attributed to poor planning. Better plans would have meant a larger invasion force, which would have prevented central authority in Iraq from unraveling. Under better plans, the CPA would not have pursued de‐​Baathification so aggressively, and it would not have let the Iraqi Army collapse.

The planning for the occupation failed, the story goes, because government was uncoordinated and left individual agencies unprepared for unconventional war. Hence various Washington think tanks have recently proposed reforms to improve the American national security bureaucracy’s coordination and ability to plan for these missions. These changes are needed, their advocates say, to improve our performance in the war against terrorists, which will entail continued counterinsurgency and stability operations. These proposals rely not only on faulty premises about Iraq, but also on undue faith in what the U.S. government can achieve.

The fact is, planning for the war was both plentiful and reasonably prescient. The problem was the Bush administration’s unwillingness to use the plans. Accurate information about the likely postwar situation was available — it was either discarded or ignored. Ideology, combined with a healthy dose of wishful thinking and analytical bias, trumped expertise. No amount of bureaucratic rejiggering can make the President listen to the right people. The lesson here is not that the U.S. security establishment needs better planning, but that it needs better leaders. That problem is solved by elections, not bureaucratic tinkering.

The more important problem with the idea that planning could have saved Iraq is that it implies proper organizational charts and meetings can stabilize broken countries and make order where there is none. This confuses a process with a policy, a bureaucratic mechanism with the power to establish a new political order. Planning solves engineering problems: upgrading electrical grids, extending modern sewerage and rebuilding schools and hospitals. Restructuring foreign societies is another matter. The trick is not having the right plans; it is having the power to implement them. Americans never had that in Iraq; the power to conquer foreign countries is not the power to run them. There was not then and is not now an American plan sufficient to solve Iraq’s fundamental problem — the lack of popular support within Iraqi society for an equitable division of power.

Another reason Americans have struggled in Iraq is that nation‐​building is at odds with our national character. Whatever else changed after September 11, America remains unprepared for imperialism. Neither the State Department nor the U.S. Agency for International Development, technically part of State, is built to administer an empire. The department’s budget is tiny because its aim is to relate to foreign nations, not to run them. Likewise, our Army cannot easily transform itself into a counterinsurgency force after decades of avoiding those missions. This is no accident. Americans historically looked askance at the small wars European powers fought to maintain their empires, viewing those actions as illiberal and unjust. Misadventures like Vietnam are the exceptions that make the rule. When it comes to nation‐​building, brokering civil and ethnic conflict and waging counterinsurgency, we are our own worst enemy.

State‐​building is a skill Americans need not master. Counterterrorism is best accomplished by police, intelligence operatives and special operations forces. We can hunt and capture or kill the jihadists who seek to attack Americans without governing foreign states. Boots on the ground are needed in rare cases like Afghanistan to root out terrorist sanctuaries, but, in general, military occupations undermine counterterrorism efforts. Occupations convert extremists who would otherwise concern themselves with resisting their own governments into international terrorists interested in killing Americans. Preventing terrorists from gaining sanctuary in weak states does not require that we reinvent ours.

The best way to promote American security is restraint — a wise and masterly inactivity in the face of most foreign disorder. We should resurrect the notion that the best way to spread democracy is to model it. Our ideology sells itself, especially when it is not introduced at gunpoint or during a lecture instructing foreigners on how to run their country. Likewise, in the long term, unplanned free trade and the wealth it brings may do more to promote stability abroad than the most careful planning. The assertion of raw U.S. power in foreign countries tends to unify our enemies and weaken our ideological allies.

The lessons drawn from the war in Iraq should include caution about the limits of our power in remaking states. Iraq should not become a laboratory to perfect the process of doing so. The fetish for planning and reordering the national security establishment might produce some worthwhile changes, but it also might grease our slide into an imperial era foolishly foisted on Americans in the name of security. Iraq’s principle lesson is that preserving our power sometimes requires restraining it.