Lessons from Iraq

Michael Gerson:

Whatever the eventual outcome of the Iraq War—a precipitous, politically driven withdrawal, a gradual counterinsurgency victory, or something in between—it is necessary to begin drawing some lessons. The first is unavoidable: Regime change is the most difficult of foreign policy options, the most fraught with unintended consequences, and the least suited to the American style of war. Regime removal, it turns out, is relatively easy, given our country's unrivaled military capabilities. But regime removal is different from regime change, which may require a massive and costly effort of nation building—especially when a society has been debilitated by decades of totalitarian rule. For nearly thirty years, Saddam Hussein instilled terror and distrust, fed divisions of clan and tribe, and encouraged the fears of the Sunni minority. Wounds so deep heal slowly and gradually, and only in an atmosphere of security and order—an atmosphere the Coalition did not initially provide.

Throughout most of my White House experience, I intuitively sided with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's combative confidence against Secretary of State Colin Powell's caution and diplomacy. But it is now clear to me that, despite its indisputable utility on today's battlefield, the Rumsfeld Doctrine, with its stress on light and flexible high-tech military power, is less well suited to an occupation like Iraq than are certain elements of the Powell Doctrine—especially the need for clear goals and overwhelming force. Defeating an insurgency is possible (a fact proven in Malaysia and El Salvador); and sometimes it is necessary. But this kind of counterinsurgency campaign cannot be conducted quickly or on the cheap. For years, lower-level officers had made the case that when American troops in Iraq came into an area and stayed, there was relative calm. But for years there were not enough troops to make that strategy work on a sufficient scale in Baghdad.

Another lesson concerns the power of dramatic acts of violence in a media age. Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi's strategy in Iraq, in the end—even after his own end—was successful. Al-Qaeda was not responsible for most of the attacks in Iraq, but it authored the most spectacular and bloody ones—the destruction of mosques, the carnage at busy markets. And this had two effects. It created images of hopeless chaos in the American media, undermining public support for the war. Even more destructively, the attacks fed sectarian divisions within Iraq at the expense of democratic aspirations. The attraction of freedom is powerful. But hatred is not without its appeal, either, especially in the absence of order. A small group of ruthless men proved capable of fanning that hatred through spectacular acts of murder …

Not long before I left the White House, the president put the situation to me bluntly: "If the definition of success is no bombings on TV, America is in trouble. If the definition of success is steady progress in Iraq toward self-sufficiency, we can win." This explains President Bush's emphasis on public resolve. "The most important thing to know," he continued, "is that I'm not going to waver." Resolve is not a substitute for effectiveness and competence in the War on Terror—but effectiveness and competence cannot prevail without it …

… There is also danger in learning the wrong lessons from Iraq—or in overlearning the lessons of caution. Some claim the American project in Iraq was doomed from the beginning, because Iraqis and Arabs more broadly are culturally incapable of sustaining democracy. That is a familiar historical charge, made in other periods, against Catholics in Southern Europe, Hindus and Muslims in India, Eastern Orthodox in Eastern Europe, and Confucian cultures across Asia. All of these groups experienced difficult days in their democratic transitions—moments when the skeptics seemed to be vindicated. Did Indian democracy look to be successful when more than a million people died by violence during the partition process in the later 1940s? But in all of these cases, betting against the advance of democracy was a poor wager.


Another false lesson is found in the assertion that the Iraq War has actually been creating the terrorist threat we seek to fight—stirring up a hornet's nest of understandable grievances in the Arab world. In fact, radical Islamist networks have never lacked for historical provocations. When Osama bin Laden proclaimed his 1998 fatwa justifying the murder of Americans, he used the excuse of President Clinton's sanctions and air strikes against Iraq—what he called a policy of "continuing aggression against the Iraqi people." He talked of the "devastation" caused by "horrible massacres" of the 1991 Gulf War. All this took place before the invasion of Iraq was even contemplated—and it was enough to result in the murder of nearly three thousand Americans on 9/11. Islamic radicals will seize on any excuse in their campaign of recruitment and incitement. If it were not Iraq, it would be the latest "crime" of Israel, or the situation in East Timor, or cartoons in a Dutch newspaper, or statements by the pope. The well of outrage is bottomless. The list of demands—from the overthrow of moderate Arab governments to the reconquest of Spain—is endless.


He touches on some of the false lessons that Democrats have draw from the war, but he is far to kind to them. They have been at their worst and most wrong when it came to the surge, which they declared a failure before all the troops had even hit the ground. They voted for retreat some 55 times before Gen. Petraeus even reported on the effects of the surge. When it was clear that his report would indicate some success they called him a liar, even when the facts supported his statements. They have demonstrated bad faith in the Iraq debate for a year now and show little sign of repentance.

The President indicates the problem with the violence metric, but he and the military have not done enough to argue what a poor metric it is for events in Iraq or elsewhere. As it turned out that violence against non combatants by al Qaeda in Iraq, helped turn the people against the organization and got most of the sheiks to rally to our side. The media and the Democrats remind me of Dr. Hook's I Got Stoned and I Missed It. They were too high on the Bush hatred to recognize the victory we were winning.


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