What We Can 'Learn' From Our 9 Years in Iraq

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This is little bit "old" -- it came out a week ago, which means that it is ancient history in Internet terms. But I just saw it now, in my return to online life, and it is valuable enough that I want to highlight it for anyone else who may have missed it.

I am talking about an essay by Stephen M. Walt, on the Foreign Policy site, listing the "Top 10 Lessons of the Iraq War." Lesson-drawing is, deservedly, a suspect enterprise. In looking back on either successes or failures, we tend to discover exactly the "lessons" that fit our preexisting views. But even allowing for that possibility in Walt's case -- and for my own inevitable bias in favor of "lessons" that largely match what I've concluded myself -- I still think that this is one of the better efforts to think clearly and practically about what happened in Iraq. And if it has implications for the ongoing war in Afghanistan, and the potential one with Iran -- well, you can draw those lessons yourself.

Read the whole thing, but here is one sample point with obvious current-day relevance. The embedded link is in the original, and is to a "threat inflation" analysis, by Chaim Kaufmann, that is worth reading as well:

Lesson #3: The United States gets in big trouble when the "marketplace of ideas" breaks down and when the public and our leadership do not have an open debate about what to do.

Given the stakes involved, it is remarkable how little serious debate there actually was about the decision to invade. This was a bipartisan failure, as both conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats all tended to jump onboard the bandwagon to war. And mainstream media organizations became cheerleaders rather than critics. Even within the halls of government, individuals who questioned the wisdom of the invasion or raised doubts about the specific plans were soon marginalized. As a result, not only did the United States make a bone-headed decision, but the Bush administration went into Iraq unprepared for the subsequent occupation.

I hope that the somewhat-greater degree of public, political, and media debate about whether the United States should be contemplating a strike on Iran, compared with the herd-impulse rush toward war with Iraq a decade ago, indicates some absorption of Walt's Lesson #3.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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