Iraq: Lessons learned, lessons ignored

The world’s only superpower has learned some hard lessons during three years of war in Iraq and there is increasing skepticism about whether it can ever achieve its objectives there.

President George W. Bush’s stated rationale for invading in March 2003 — ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction — quickly proved illusory. No such arms were ever found.

Three years later, as bodies are dumped daily on the streets of Baghdad and civil war is very possible, longer term U.S. ambitions for a stable and democratic Iraq also seem shaky, experts say.

“It’s quite clear, the United States did not achieve its objectives in Iraq” because they were “fundamentally wrong,” said Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon official who once worked for Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Iraq had “no serious weapons of mass destruction program … so we went to war for the wrong reason to deal with a threat that didn’t exist,” he told Reuters.

Rather than ridding the Middle East of Islamic extremists, the U.S. invasion has strengthened them, and there is “much more threat from al Qaeda in Iraq,” said Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Although U.S. officials remain upbeat about Iraq’s prospects, public opinion polls show deep division among ordinary Americans. Bush’s popularity has sunk to its lowest point in his six years in office, support for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq has plummeted and there is deepening concern about Iraq’s future.

U.S. political leaders are so worried they created a high-powered bipartisan study group last week to look at alternatives for U.S. policy in Iraq that could unite Americans. Participants, who acknowledged their task would be extremely difficult, did not set a deadline for completing the work.

Judith Yaphe, an Iraq specialist at the National Defense University, noted the invasion succeeded in ousting Saddam Hussein and bringing the dictator to trial.

But Iraq is far from being a stable democracy that could serve as a model for regional change, and it definitely was not the U.S. aim to trigger civil war, she said.


“It was simplistic of people to think that you could get rid of Saddam and things would be fine. … The U.S. government understood very little about Iraq and how easily and quickly it is for a country which was held together by 35 years of repression to spin out of control,” Yaphe added.

Yet in the run-up to war, Bush and his foreign policy team — one of the most experienced in modern U.S. history — were warned repeatedly — by allies, experts and other U.S. officials — about the difficulties Iraq presented.

Danielle Pletka of the conservative American Enterprise Institute acknowledged that building a stable U.S.-style democracy in Iraq is probably out of reach.

But “if the goal is to create a relatively stable democracy and a slow but improving security environment for the Iraqis, then I think we’re on our way,” she insisted.

There is broad consensus among experts that the U.S. failure to plan for the postwar period was a major flaw that allowed the insurgency to take hold.

The administration tried to correct that in part by establishing a State Department office to coordinate postwar stabilization and reconstruction efforts in future crises, but it has run into bureaucratic problems.

Other lessons are showing up in U.S. policy documents. The just-released National Security Strategy and a recent defense planning paper emphasize working with allies and play down the kind of unilateral tendencies the United States displayed in Iraq, Cordesman said.

“We’ve learned a great deal and it’s been a set of painful lessons,” he said.

Those lessons include the need for U.S. forces that fight conventional wars and conduct counterinsurgency operations; a vigorous nation-building capability; and a stronger State Department that can manage diplomacy as well as aid for training police in post-conflict situations, he said.

Another realization is that “military options can create as many problems as they solve,” he added.

Pletka said the administration also realized the importance of having a lower-key chief representative in Iraq — like U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad — and that “reinforcing existing fissures” in Iraqi society by including sectarian militias in the army is not a good idea.

© 2006 Reuters