My expectation is more modest still: I fear but expect that the U.S. is fated to lurch from one over-“learning” to its opposite, and continue making a steadily shifting range of errors.
The decision to invade Iraq was itself clearly one of those. The elder George Bush fought a quick and victorious war to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991. But he stopped short of continuing the war into Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power—and so his son learned from that “failure” that he had to finish the job of eliminating Saddam. (As did a group of the younger George Bush’s most influential advisors: Dick Cheney, who had been secretary of defense during the original Gulf war, and returned as George W. Bush’s vice president. Colin Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the first time around, and secretary of state the second. Paul Wolfowitz was undersecretary of defense during the first war, and deputy secretary of defense during the second. And so on.)
Two of the writers who were most eloquent in making their case for the war—Christopher Hitchens, who then wrote for the Atlantic among other places, and Michael Kelly, who was then our editor-in-chief—based much of their case on the evils Saddam Hussein had gotten away with after the original Gulf War. (Hitchens died of cancer in 2011; Kelly was killed in Iraq, as an embedded reporter in the war’s early stage.) Then Barack Obama, who had become president in large part because he opposed the Iraq war — which gave him his opening against the vastly better known and more experienced Hillary Clinton— learned from Iraq about the dangers of intervention in Syria. And on through whatever cycles the future holds.
* * *
Is there escape from the cycles? In a fundamental sense, of course not, no. But I’ll offer the “lesson” I learned—50 years ago, in a classroom with Professor May; 40 years ago, when I watched Jimmy Carter weigh his choices; 15 years ago, in warning about the risks of invading Iraq. It involves a cast of mind, and a type of imagination.
As the Bush administration moved onto a war footing soon after the 9/11 attacks, no one could know the future risks and opportunities. But, at the suggestion of my friend and then-editor Cullen Murphy, I began reporting on what the range of possibilities might be. Starting in the spring of 2002, when the Bush team was supposedly still months away from a decision about the war, it was clear to us that the choice had been made. I interviewed dozens of historians, military planners, specialists in post-war occupations, and people from the region to try to foresee the likely pitfalls.
The result, which was in our November, 2002 issue (and which we put online three months earlier, in hopes of affecting the debate) was called “The Fifty-First State?” Its central argument was: The “war” part of the undertaking would be the easy part, and deceptively so. The hard part would begin when U.S. troops had reached Baghdad and the statues of Saddam Hussein were pulled down—and would last for months, and years, and decades, all of which should be taken into consideration in weighing the choice for war.