Learning From (Recent) History

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James Poulos, on the lessons of Iraq:

Of course, people get antsy when you won't cough up a grand ideology to match your grand strategy, but that's sort of the point; and now I'll make what looks like an about-face and suggest that, for someone not tethered to realism or neoconservatism as a matter of ideological principle, the Iraq war was not terribly chastening, even if it was formative, because some of us suspected from the beginning that there was really only one Iraq, and that the perfect storm of possibility, capability, timing, interest, and passion developed there in a way that simply won't appear in any other country any time soon -- especially given the way Iraq went down. Yes, for a minute there it looked like we could tip the extremely weak and craven regime in Damascus out of power, but in all the really serious cases -- North Korea, Iran, Burma, or even Zimbabwe or Sudan or Somalia or Pakistan or Venezuela or Cuba! -- the Iraq model of foreign policy simply won't, because it can't, apply. Iraq was a world-historical one-off that should offer a host of wisdom about what sort of businesses the US should and shouldn't be in. But in the main I think the "lessons learned" in Iraq are ones we already knew or should have known, and that includes the lessons that could have made the occupation of Iraq far more successful.

I think this is somewhat too pat. For one thing, in almost any crisis the benefits of hindsight make many of the lessons look like things "we already knew or should have known." (Unless you're in Robert Rubinesque denial, that is.) More importantly, the phrase "a host of wisdom about what sort of businesses the US should and shouldn't be in" seems to me to need a great deal of unpacking to be useful, because there's all kinds of disagreement about exactly what sort of businesses have been discredited by the Iraq invasion. The fact that the whole kit-and-caboodle of the Iraq situation - pre-emptive or preventive war, WMD, oil, Saddam's defiance of the UN, the costs of the sanctions regime, the post-9/11 environment - won't recur doesn't mean that aspects of the Iraq situation won't recur in future crises, and it's vitally important to decide what, specifically, we mean when we talk about the lessons of Iraq.

For instance, suppose that in the aftermath of some future crisis or flashpoint, we find ourselves debating a Robert Kagan-style proposal for a multinational (but inevitably American-led) force to police the more volatile parts of Pakistan - or, to take a similar idea floated by a liberal hawk, Thomas Friedman's pre-9/11 proposal for a NATO police operation in the West Bank. In assessing such a course, it makes a big difference whether the lesson of Iraq is that the United States shouldn't undertake major military operations, period, absent an immediate casus belli .... or that Western militaries shouldn't undertake the occupation of Islamic countries, specifically .... or that the U.S. shouldn't undertake military actions in the Islamic world, or anywhere else, without the support of a NATO or UN-style body ... or that the U.S. shouldn't undertake military action in the Islamic world if it doesn't have a State Department-approved plan of occupation ... or that it shouldn't undertake military action if incompetents like George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld are running the show ... and so on down a pretty long list of options.

My own (provisional) view is that the Iraq War tells us a great deal about the limits/costs of using large-scale military force in situations where the stakes are vastly higher for our opponents than for ourselves, a great deal about America's ability, or lack thereof, to transform dysfunctional societies through occupation, a fair amount about the limits of pro-democracy sentiment as a north star for policymaking, and a fair amount about the limits of American power, period. I think it tells us less than many liberals and conservatives think about the particular incompetence of Bush's war cabinet (though clearly it tells us something on that score!), less than many liberals (and some realists) think about the importance of international organizations and their utility for crisis management in high-stakes situations, and less than many progressives and paleoconservatives think about whether the U.S. should radically scale down its involvement in Middle Eastern politics, and more broadly abandon its informal-empire commitments around the world.

These lessons inform my critique of the current range of foreign policy thinking on the Right - namely, that it's too trigger-happy when it comes to proposing sending American troops abroad, and too apt to overestimate America's ability to do sixteen different things before breakfast. (Thus I'm basically with Eli Lake about the Pax Americana, for instance, without being with Max Boot about Georgia, or Kagan about occupying Waziristan.) But as I hope the foregoing suggests, it's possible to think that the Iraq War offers "a host of wisdom about what sort of businesses the US should and shouldn't be in" and come to completely different conclusions than the ones I've drawn about what that wisdom is. 

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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