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The Iraq War at Ten

On the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War, Meghan O’Sullivan, former Deputy National Security Advisor for President Bush, has a piece up at TAI looking back at the conflict and the lessons Americans have drawn from it:

Given the complexity of U.S. efforts in Iraq over the past decade, the lessons derived will necessarily span volumes and require the examination of scholars, diplomats and military analysts. Yet thus far America has not shown much appetite for this endeavor; it is almost as if there is a tacit agreement not to speak either about the initial phase of the war or its exhausting, protracted aftermath. The United States  thus runs the risk of repeating one of the failures of Vietnam. Wanting to ensure that America never fought such a war again, it refrained from institutionalizing the lessons of the conflict, contributing to the need for the United States to re-learn them from scratch in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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.

A small but important starting place in what should be a massive undertaking is more careful scrutiny of the conventional wisdom that informs U.S. and international reactions to the crises unfolding in the Arab world today. Three high-level, common takeaways in particular deserve greater examination: the notion that democracy can be risky or is ill-suited for Arab countries emerging from authoritarian regimes; the sense that dismantling the structures of the state, such as the army, is a road to ruin; and the idea that the provision of security should underpin all other efforts. The first two takeaways are much oversimplified and misleading, while the last is true but vastly underappreciated.

A decade on, many Americans are keen to forget the Iraq War and its aftermath, but it’s critical that we understand its legacy.  Read the whole thing.

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