Washington Diary: What we can "learn" from our nine years in Iraq

By James Fallows

US Marines searching a house during the Iraq war

Photo: Wikipedia

This is little bit "old" — it came out a week ago, which means that it is ancient history in Internet terms. But I just saw it now, in my return to online life, and it is valuable enough that I want to highlight it for anyone else who may have missed it.

I am talking about an essay by Stephen M. Walt, on the Foreign Policy site, listing the "Top 10 Lessons of the Iraq War." Lesson-drawing is, deservedly, a suspect enterprise. In looking back on either successes or failures, we tend to discover exactly the "lessons" that fit our preexisting views. But even allowing for that possibility in Walt's case — and for my own inevitable bias in favor of "lessons" that largely match what I've concluded myself — I still think that this is one of the better efforts to think clearly and practically about what happened in Iraq. And if it has implications for the ongoing war in Afghanistan, and the potential one with Iran — well, you can draw those lessons yourself.

Read the whole thing, but here is one sample point with obvious current-day relevance. The embedded link is in the original, and is to a "threat inflation" analysis [PDF], by Chaim Kaufmann, that is worth reading as well:

Lesson #3: The United States gets in big trouble when the "marketplace of ideas" breaks down and when the public and our leadership do not have an open debate about what to do.

Given the stakes involved, it is remarkable how little serious debate there actually was about the decision to invade. This was a bipartisan failure, as both conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats all tended to jump onboard the bandwagon to war. And mainstream media organizations became cheerleaders rather than critics. Even within the halls of government, individuals who questioned the wisdom of the invasion or raised doubts about the specific plans were soon marginalized. As a result, not only did the United States make a bone-headed decision, but the Bush administration went into Iraq unprepared for the subsequent occupation.

I hope that the somewhat-greater degree of public, political, and media debate about whether the United States should be contemplating a strike on Iran, compared with the herd-impulse rush toward war with Iraq a decade ago, indicates some absorption of Walt's Lesson #3.

This post was originally published at The Atlantic.

28 March 2012