Lessons From Iraq: Avoiding the Next War

Lessons from IraqEditors Note: The following is from the introduction to Lessons From Iraq: Avoiding the Next War.

In January of 2007, former Senator George McGovern was in Washington to give a lunchtime speech at the National Press Club, laying out his plan for ending the U.S. war in Iraq. He spent the previous morning sitting a few blocks away in a conference room at the Institute for Policy Studies, trying out the speech on a few sympathetic friends.

The four walls of this conference room are covered by a collage of photos, book jackets, news articles, quotes and drawings depicting IPS’ involvement in the issues of four decades. On McGovern’s right the cover of The Vietnam Reader (Random House, 1965) looked across the room at a photo from February 15, 2003: women in Baghdad joining the millions who assembled that day in streets on every continent of the globe to oppose the Iraq war.

McGovern was in the mood to reminisce about his previous effort to end a war, the one he’ll be remembered for by history. His daughters were worried back then about the toll this effort was taking on him. “You’re not ending it,” he recalled them saying. “Why don’t you quit?” His answer was: “At least we’ll never have to go down this road again.” In the 2007 retelling this was a punchline of course, and it got the laugh.

Such assurances, like the title of this book, have time and again been revealed to be false advertising. “Never Again” has been disproved repeatedly (Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur…) since it was first turned into a rallying cry. Likewise, the lessons in this book will not be a guarantee against the next war, even supposing they all took hold.

There will be a next war. It needs to be undertaken only as a last resort, and the danger is great that it won’t be. A necessary if insufficient way to avoid repeating the last war is to learn its lessons.

There have been many. New revelations about this war’s ways and means—both the ones officially announced and those forcibly exposed—have come at us at a relentless pace. The process of absorbing the shock of one has often been short-circuited by the onslaught of the next.

During November and December of 2005 for example, we learned, first, that the Bush administration was flying terrorism suspects to secret prisons in countries that permit torture; then that, even as Secretary of State Colin Powell was making his prewar case to the UN about ongoing Iraqi weapons programs, U.S. intelligence agencies were raising serious doubts behind the scenes; and finally that the National Security Agency was secretly tapping American phones without warrants.

The danger is that we will absorb these shocks by getting used to them. We’ll lift our burden of resistance by incorporating these facts into the domain of the normal, and move on. But we can’t move on. The damage done by this war has to be examined if it is to be repaired.

This book is an effort to fix some points. Nail a few things down. Declare some policies and practices off limits to American policymakers.

If what is shaping up to be the worst foreign policy disaster in U.S. history has an upside it is: that this war should definitively, permanently settle a handful of critical questions about American conduct in the world. Our proposed list is here.

Settling them is certainly a work in progress. The Iraq war is bleeding conceptually into the limitless Global War on Terror, primarily through the Bush administration’s determination to conflate the two. In the summer of 2007, as Congress failed once again to end the war, it also expanded the government’s power to listen in to the phone calls of Americans, without their knowledge and without a court’s consent. A majority of our legislators apparently calculated, at least temporarily, that because a future terrorist attack in the U.S. is possible (as it will ever be, President Bush’s declared intentions to “defeat terrorism” notwithstanding) resistance to this violation of our civil liberties was politically impossible.

On the other hand, the American public has felt the war’s damage deeply enough that this may be the most seizable moment since the end of the cold war to hash out, fight for, solidify some principles of prevention. It’s the moment to agree on some causes of the damage and remove them from our table of options.

All societies need a ready reference handbook that draws some lines around its conduct of war, establishing: if we’re going to go to war, we can’t do it this way, and for these reasons. The UN Charter laid down the broad outlines for everybody more than a half century ago. But countries need to flesh these out from time to time on the basis of their own recent experience.

The Bush administration has produced a radical overhaul of the U.S. manual. Given the Iraq experience, it is urgent that we reject this version and think again. We offer this book as a manageable, accessible, affordable compilation of key points that most urgently need to be rethought.

The idea of assembling lessons as tools for avoiding the next war is less of a stretch than it seems, given the group of writers represented here. These are people who know what they’re talking about. They include a Nobel Prize-winning economist and his collaborator whose analysis of the true costs of the war has become the most widely cited source on the topic. In these pages they have pushed their analysis wider and deeper than before. This much can be said: the next time a government official talks about a war paying for itself, as former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz did, s/he won’t get away with it. Stiglitz and Bilmes have constructed the formula against which future debates over the costs of future wars will be judged.

Our writers also include the former chief UN weapons inspector, the world’s principal pre-war source for what turned out to be the truth about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. If truth had been enough to stop a war, his work would have done it. And they include an Iraqi-American whose weekly conversations with his relatives have given him a grim education into what living through a war to spread democracy is like on the ground. Also here is a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner who traces the recurring American bad habit of starting wars as try-outs for big ideas. And we include one scholar who has earned his position of authority on wars for empire by sticking with the topic through three books, and another who has taken the same path to authority on wars for oil. To mention a few. We have asked them to boil down what they know for the rest of us.

These lessons are organized into three categories.

First are the “whys.” Iraq has been, foremost, a war of first resort. It was launched a year after our first National Security doctrine of the new century replaced one based on avoiding war unless absolutely necessary, declaring that the old doctrine actually made war more likely. Wars had to be fought to prevent future enemies from developing. They would be fought to create the conditions of peace. For an analysis of this doctrine, read the first piece in the collection; for an unnerving but exhilarating tour through the Orwellian minds of its adherents, read the last.

The Iraq war became the testbed for the ideological dream of delivering to the world a Pax Americana. It would spread the blessings of democracy while securing the economic lifelines of oil and U.S.-favorable trade, by means of a dazzlingly superior military. This military would use the war to showcase its new weapons and its new ways of organizing itself and doing business with its military allies.

The dream was hatched at least as far back as the end of the cold war, by those who saw their chance to solidify the position of the lone remaining superpower. The 9-11 attacks were seized, days or hours after they occurred, as the chance to accelerate the engines of this goal to full power. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, Afghanistan lacked “good targets.” So the Idea became war with Iraq.

The book’s second section focuses on the “hows.” The pieces there outline the administration’s daring innovations in the manipulation of existing institutions: the UN, its international weapons inspectorate, U.S. intelligence agencies, major media. And they examine the companion piece to that effort, in the creation of false substitutes for these institutions: phony international coalitions, phony media, phony intelligence groups.

The last section surveys the major changes—what we call the collateral damage—to our national life and its constitutional foundation that have been achieved through war: the expansion of the power of the executive branch and the private sector and the constraint of our civil liberties. These achievements now have to be unachieved.

A word on what isn’t here. These essays don’t take part in the debate over how the war and ensuing occupation could have been done better. No question, they could have been. But this debate should not proceed unless it is tethered firmly to one fixed point, one inescapable conclusion, which is that this war should not have been fought at all. The reasons, enough of them, are here.
But assuredly not all of them. Our hope is that this list will spark reflections on what’s missing, and what’s wrong. We hope that educators will lead exercises in prioritizing the list, disputing it, drawing connections among its items, discussing the extent to which these Iraq inventions are new or recycled. We hope there will be debate over whether and how these lessons, or others, could be turned into barricades marking the territory of these inventions out of bounds to future American policymakers. We hope that citizens will take up these questions themselves. All of us have to try and finally make good on Senator McGovern’s intent that “we’ll never have to go down this road again.”

Miriam Pemberton is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, writing and speaking on demilitarization issues for its Foreign Policy In Focus project.