The true lesson of Iraq – and everywhere else.
I’ve always appreciated the British military’s definition of experience: “That which enables you to recognize a mistake the second time you make it.” Unfortunately, the American version includes third and fourth identical mistakes.
The key practical lesson from our involvement in Iraq was “Plan for the worst-case outcome.” We didn’t. Influenced by neo-conservative ideologues (with no military experience), the George W. Bush administration forbade the Pentagon from doing what our military would have done automatically: Plan for various outcomes, including the worst that could happen.
At the time, I made the worst analytical mistake of my entire life. When well-placed friends in the Army told me there was no occupation plan, I assumed they just weren’t in the loop. As a former staff officer, I couldn’t imagine that any administration would go to war without thorough planning for various outcomes. Not planning was inconceivable to me.
My friends were right, I was wrong, and we arrived in Baghdad with no plan. The neo-cons wanted their war at any cost and had assured complicit decision-makers that, once Saddam Hussein was removed, everything would magically work out. It didn’t.
What did we learn? Nothing. When the Obama administration supported toppling the Qaddafi regime in Libya, there was no “then-what?” planning. Once Moammar Qaddafi was removed, everything would magically work out. It didn’t that time, either.
Ditto for Afghanistan, for that matter.
As I write, the Obama administration mulls intervention in Syria. By the time you read this, we may be deep in the muck (one hopes not). But if Bashar Assad is toppled, what next? Assad’s an odious butcher. But if we help bring down this dictator, what’s our plan for the aftermath?
What if al-Qaeda’s franchises and native Islamist fanatics seize Damascus? The feeble “moderate opposition” we favor won’t be able to remove them. Would al-Qaeda in power really be better than Assad’s survival? In serious strategy, the choices aren’t black and white; at best, they tend to be black vs. charcoal gray.
What if the Islamists further intensify their ongoing campaign to drive out Christians, Alawites and other minorities? Will we protect them? We didn’t protect the Christians in Iraq, who fled by the hundreds of thousands. Both Republican and Democratic administrations have looked away as the 2,000-year-old Christian civilization of the Middle East has been methodically eradicated. Do we really want a “pure” Islamist state in Syria?
Symbolic, churn-the-dirt cruise-missile strikes only reinforce our image among our enemies as weak-willed and afraid. Heavier strikes would, essentially, provide air support for al-Qaeda. Twelve years after 9/11, is that the best use of our military resources?
There are many other questions – not least, why must the United States intervene in every conflict in the Middle East? Can we constructively influence what’s actually a region-wide civil war among Muslims, between Sunni and Shia, and between fanatics and modernizers? Why do we refuse to recognize that there’s an inevitable process under way as local populations dismantle the dysfunctional borders drawn by Europeans and re-create more natural frontiers? We see “sovereign states,” but our enemies see the region as a whole.
Not least, how much American blood is it worth to stop hostile populations from shedding their own blood?
There will always be advocates for every intervention, from do-gooders who value foreign lives above those of our troops, through ideologues right and left, to war profiteers scheming for a return to the gold-rush years in Iraq and Afghanistan. But none are willing to answer that put-on-the-brakes question, “What comes next?”
Watch: How will Washington handle the latest iteration of regime change?
Crisis Watch Bottom Line: If our enemies are killing each other – as they are in Syria – why is it in our interest to step in between them?
Ralph Peters is a former Army enlisted man and retired officer. He is also a commentator and the author of several books, including the new novel “Hell or Richmond,” about General U.S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, and the Boyd Award-winning bestseller “Cain at Gettysburg.”
Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Armchair General.