Learning the Right Lessons from Iraq

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Foreign policy experts and policy analysts aremisreading the lessons of Iraq. The emergingconventional wisdom holds that success couldhave been achieved in Iraq with more troops,more cooperation among U.S. government agencies,and better counterinsurgency doctrine. Toanalysts who share these views, Iraq is not anexample of what not to do but of how not to doit. Their policy proposals aim to reform thenational security bureaucracy so that we will getit right the next time.

The near‐​consensus view is wrong and dangerous.What Iraq demonstrates is a need for a newnational security strategy, not better tactics andtools to serve the current one. By insisting thatIraq was ours to remake were it not for the Bushadministration’s mismanagement, we ignore thelimits on our power that the war exposes and inthe process risk repeating our mistake.

The popular contention that the Bush administration’sfailures and errors in judgmentcan be attributed to poor planning is also false.There was ample planning for the war, but it conflictedwith the Bush administration’s expec​ta​tions​.To the extent that planning failed, therefore,the lesson to draw is not that the UnitedStates national security establishment needs betterplanning, but that it needs better leaders.That problem is solved by elections, not bureaucratictinkering.

The military gives us the power to conquerforeign countries, but not the power to runthem. Because there are few good reasons to takeon missions meant to resuscitate failed governments,terrorism notwithstanding, the mostimportant lesson from the war in Iraq should bea newfound appreciation for the limits of ourpower.

Benjamin H. Friedman, Harvey M. Sapolsky, and Christopher A. Preble

Benjamin H. Friedman is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and a Ph.D. candidate in the Security Studies Program at MIT; Harvey M. Sapolsky is a professor of public policy and organization at MIT; and Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.