Why We Won't Learn From Iraq

An enormous mistake, which probably will not prove "instructive"
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Ten years ago today the U.S. began its invasion of Iraq. I argue that it was the worst strategic mistake since the end of World War II, and probably the biggest "unforced error" in American history. 

Even as I've been ladling out the 10-years-after installments, I have very little faith or even hope that this ruinous decision will prove "instructive" in any way. Here is why:

1) Avoidance. After Pearl Harbor, after Vietnam, after World War II, after the 9/11 attacks, even after civilian disasters like the Challenger explosion or Katrina, there were official efforts, of varying seriousness and success, to find out what had gone wrong, and why, and to yield "lessons learned."

'Like infants, they live in a continuous present'
That hasn't happened this time, for a lot of reasons. For the Bush Administration, there was no "failure" to be examined and explained. For the Obama Administration, the point was to "look forward not back." 

People in the media and politics who were against the war know that it can grow tiresome to keep pointing that out. Example: Barack Obama would not be president today if he had not given a speech in Chicago in October 2002, saying that he (as a mere state senator) did not oppose all wars but was against a "dumb" and "rash" war in Iraq. Listen to how he talked in those days! He denounced "the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne." Because of that speech, six years later Obama could argue that his judgment had been right, and the vastly more experienced HIllary Clinton's had been wrong, about matters of war and peace. But there's no percentage for him in bringing that up now.

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People in the media who were for the war have, with rare and admirable exceptions, avoided looking back. The Washington Post's editorial page was one of the most strident pro-war voices, part of a claque creating -- as I recall and noted at the time -- a kind of war frenzy in the capital. There is not a word about Iraq on its editorial page today (at right, but check it out for yourself). Say this for Paul Wolfowitz: While he didn't come close on this past week's talk shows to engaging Andrew Bacevich's challenge [which Harper's has now opened for non-subscribers], at least he recognized Iraq as a question he would have to address. George Packer was one of several influential "liberal hawks" who were making a pro-war case in the New Yorker. I view, and viewed, that era and its choices very differently from him. (For instance he now says, "Spending a lot of time in Iraq did not make you" -- meaning himself -- "more keenly aware of America's larger strategic interests. It rendered you less likely to ask the essential questions about the inception of the war.") But I am glad he addresses the issue today. 

2) The 'continuous present' Our friend Mike Lofgren argues in the Huffington Post that all factions in politics and the media have not simply "failed" to learn. They live in a system that rewards not learning. For instance, he says:
Aside from its inordinate fiscal and human cost, deposing Saddam Hussein and installing a Shia-led government has had the effect of strengthening the regional position of Iran. But having built up the Iranian bogey through its own stupidity, the U.S. political establishment is now contemplating how to coerce Teheran. This refusal to see the consequences of one's actions, and then using the disastrous result as an excuse to do the same thing again, is a recurring pattern of American statecraft.

One can hypothesize that our leaders see world events as discrete and unconnected with anything that happened before; like infants, they live in a continuous present. 
3) The recurring pattern of error. When politicians and the media were "wrong" about Iraq, what did wrongness entail? Reduced to its essence it meant:
  • Exaggerating the scale and imminence of a threat from Iraq;
  • Growing testily impatient with any solutions other than the "kinetic" (e.g., from TNY 10 years ago, "a return to a hollow pursuit of containment will be the most dangerous option of all.");
  • Grossly underestimating the difficulty of "removing" that threat with military force;
  • Showing a failure of tragic imagination (different from a tragic failure of imagination, which was also true) about the ripple effects and long-term costs and consequences of taking a clear and "decisive" step now.
If we were to "learn" from mistakes, we might avoid this specific set of biases and miscalibrations when it comes to another "preventive" strike against another threatening nation in exactly the same part of the world. But we see every one of these four elements of this syndrome -- exaggeration, impatience, polyanna-ism about military measures, naivete about long-term effects - in discussions about the "need" and "moral duty" to condone military action against Iran. 

Of course Iran and Iraq are different; the challenges are different; the details of military action are different. But the similarities are even greater -- and whether we can bear them in mind as we contemplate the "next war" will say a lot about whether it is ever possible to learn.
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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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