The Lesson of Iraq

Outlast America and you win.

So, Obama has finally fulfilled one of his campaign promises: at long last, we are out of Iraq.

There may be a few caveats: it's only our combat brigades that have left, and the 50,000 troops still remaining could probably put forward a fair bit of combating should they be called upon to do so.  But lo! the Commander in Chief has decreed that the War Is Over, and So It Is.

That means it's time for the post-mortem.  What lessons have we learned?

The cynics among us will say, none!  But even though the American people or our leaders may not have actually learned anything, there is a fundamental lesson of longstanding geopolitical importance that the Iraq war has now conclusively demonstrated:

If you as an enemy of America can outlast the current president, you won't get defeated.  At worst, there'll be a draw; if you're lucky, you'll win.

America: Getting Bored Since 1950

The problem is, as a nation modern America has a ludicrously short attention span.  Other societies think in terms of generations, millennia even; most Americans can hardly remember last year.

This is reflected in our wars.  Since at least the Civil War, every war we've ever fought has begun with expectations of being over in a couple of months.  When - shock! horror! - the war extends into a handful of years, the disappointment and finger-pointing becomes extreme.  Lincoln nearly lost the White House when he couldn't nail the South down by the end of his first term.

Yet by historical standards, a four-year war is lightning-quick.  European history is full of things like "The Thirty Years' War", "The Hundred Years' War", and of course the Crusades which went on and off for several centuries.  What's more, most of these wars never really resolved the issue that originally set them going; the issues explored in the Crusades are the source of a good deal of violence to this very day, the better part of a thousand years later.

For all the mass slaughter of the World Wars, we've kind of been spoilt: those issues got resolved but good.  Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo are gone.  The Kaiser is gone.  The Austro-Hungarian Habsburg empire is gone.  The Ottoman Empire is gone, or at least it seemed to be for quite a while.

When, in stark contrast, the Korean War wound up more or less as it began, America was indignant.  Vietnam ended worse than it started.  The relatively minor conflicts in Grenada, Panama, and Yugoslavia don't seem to have accomplished much either.

What's the result?  After a short time of gung-ho enthusiasm upon embarking on a war, Americans get bored.  They want to get back to their regularly scheduled shopping.  It's a historically-unprecedented marker of just how enormously rich and powerful America is, that most people actually can ignore the conflict and get on with life.

Meanwhile, our soldiers bravely fight on.  They are unquestionably the finest soldiers in all of human history, with by far the best equipment, and many of the most skilled leaders on the ground.

Are their high-level leaders worthy of them, though?  We have yet to see a plausible-sounding strategy to turn either Iraq or Afghanistan, much less the rest of the Middle East, into anything remotely resembling something we'd like to see.  Instead, we are presented with the unedifying spectacle of Americans dying to defend a regime that normally Americans would die to destroy.

This is not the way President Bush meant for it to turn out.  He applied Colin Powell's wise doctrine of declaring a limited goal - deposing the Taliban - and tried to apply all the resources required to accomplish it until a Democratic Congress stopped providing them.

Unfortunately, mere regime change is not enough; you have to change the culture on the ground too.  After Germany surrendered, the Allies instituted an extensive deNazification program to dig out that evil ideology root and branch.  Ex-Nazis were removed from positions of power; refugees from Germany and Austria who'd fled Hitler returned in British uniform to administer governance; and ordinary Germans had their noses rubbed (sometimes literally) in the horrors of the Holocaust.  As a direct result, modern Germany has become as peaceful and tolerant a nation as anyone could wish.

The barbarism of Saddam Hussein is widely known and most Iraqis are glad to see him gone, but de-Baathification has not proceeded anything like as effectively.  Disbanding the Iraqi army seemed like a good idea at the time, but unlike Germany, we did not station millions of occupying troops in Iraq.  The result was an ongoing insurgency where we could neither provide security nor thoroughly root out evildoers of the past.

The heroism of Gen. Petraeus and Bush's "surge" may have pulled our chestnuts out of Iraq's fire, but nobody would compare Iraqi governance today to that of West Germany in the late 1950s.

The opinions, hatred, strife, and evil beliefs that allowed Saddam to rule with an iron fist are still prevalent in Iraq today, and it is highly plausible to imagine a return to dictatorship there.  Yet the only way of preventing it - millions of occupying troops for decades to come - is never going to happen.

The situation in Afghanistan is even worse.  George W. Bush, though portrayed by the liberal media as a far-right extremist, was actually almost as politically correct as they; he refused to place the blame for 9-11 where it rightly belongs, upon the evil ideology and teachings of Islam.  As a result, although the Taliban were removed from power, Afghanistan is still run by bigoted religious radicals who oppress anyone who doesn't do as they do - and our soldiers are defending them!

How can a free nation take root in such polluted soil?  It can't, and we aren't willing to do what needs to be done to cleanse the evil that led to 9-11.

A Job Worth Doing, Is Worth Doing Well

Our modern technological world has made us all used to getting everything we want instantly.  Should the desire to purchase almost anything strike you, you can probably go out and buy one today.  At worst, you order it online and it's on your doorstep tomorrow.

Americans expect the same in the geopolitical realm, but this is not possible.  You cannot change hearts and minds overnight.

Nazi Germany and militaristic Japan were the product of centuries of culture; it's really quite amazing that a mere half-century seems to have solved the problem.  The barbarism of Islam goes back much, much further.  How could anyone think a few years will do the job?

Yet no new American president has run and won on a platform of continuing an existing war.

If a president starts a war, he can win re-election on a promise to finish the job, as did FDR and George W. Bush.

Come the end of a second term and a Constitutionally-mandated new president, "a plan to end the war" is the only way to get to the Oval Office.  It doesn't matter if the war needs to be fought longer; Americans figure that a term or two is plenty.

So we return to Colin Powell's wisdom: know how to get out of a war before you get into it.  Alas, nobody has figured out a way to get out of the Global War on Terror.  A war only ends when the loser admits they've lost, and the hundreds of millions of would-be terrorist Muslims worldwide are very far from that point.

How can we get them to that point?  We'd better figure out a way, and commit to giving the job as much time and energy as required.

America may not be interested in this war, but hordes of violent Muslims are devoutly interested in bringing their war to us.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
Following the developments in the Mideast, I will be very grateful if we can get through the next two weeks without another war/attack breaking out. Iran is pulling out all the stops to try to start something big in Lebanon and Syria. Then we are hearing about two "dry runs" on our airplanes this week. Take a deep breath and keep your head down. The war on terrorism is certainly not over, and, it has always benefited the sitting President politically to have to rally the nation for a war. Yeech!
September 1, 2010 6:17 PM
We (as a nation) were never very clear about the goals we had over there. We were most certainly kidding ourselves when we believed that we could change the culture to reflect American values in any capacity. There are deeper underlying issues that are part of the fabric of that culture that preclude it from happening.

This is one conservative, who from the very beginning, believed that an occupation in that area was a stupid idea. If we have objectives like taking out Saddam, then execute those objectives and be done with it!
September 1, 2010 7:02 PM
We can't change these countries because their cultures and even governments are controlled by their religion. We should not and in fact cannot change their religion, so we need to stop trying.
September 1, 2010 9:00 PM
Ed and David are forgetting why we went to Iraq to begin with. Changing the Iraqi culture or "setting up democracy" was never the mission.

In March of 2003, President Bush and Secretary Powell told the United Nations that there was significant evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that our contacts said Saddam planned to use them.

For more than a decade Saddam had defied inspections and several of his top scientists told the US that he was planning on using nuclear and biological weapons. Furthermore, a dozen other developed nations backed up the US report with evidence of their own. Among them: England, Russia, Poland, Italy and Germany.

If we are to learn from our history, we must remember it correctly. "Nation building" is a whipping boy that liberals and libertarian-conservatives love to rally around, but it is has nothing to do with our original purpose in Iraq.
September 2, 2010 7:22 AM
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