Lessons of War

Sunday, March 18, 2007

TOMORROW MARKS the fourth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, as appropriate a moment as any to take stock. What matters most is finding the best policy now -- doing whatever can be done to help Iraq and safeguard U.S. interests in a vital region. But looking back also is essential, particularly for those of us who supported the war.

We will never know what might have happened had Saddam Hussein and his sons been left in power. Nor do we know how Iraq will evolve; history's judgment in five years or 10 may look very different than today's. But the picture today is dire, and very different from what we would have hoped or predicted four years ago. The cost in lives, injuries and dislocations, to Americans and Iraqis, has been tragic; the opportunity costs for U.S. leadership globally have been immense. So there is an obligation to reassess. What have we learned?

The easy way out is to blame President Bush, Vice President Cheney or former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld: The decision was right, the execution wrong. There's no question that the execution was disastrous. Having rolled the dice on what everyone understood to be an enormous gamble, Mr. Bush and his team followed up with breathtaking and infuriating arrogance, ignorance and insouciance. Read Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran's account of the first year of occupation, "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," and weep at the tales of White House operatives sending political hacks to overhaul Baghdad's stock exchange and tinker with its traffic rules as a deadly insurgency gathered strength.

But the war might have spun out of control even under wiser leadership. Decisions that seem so obviously wrongheaded now, such as disbanding the Iraqi army or deploying too few troops, had smart people arguing both sides at the time. Even a larger force might not have stopped the looting; total forgiveness of Baathist officers might not have forestalled Sunni insurgency or might have spurred the Shiites into rebellion. Wars unleash unpredictable and ugly forces, even short and "successful" wars. The United States is still paying a price for the betrayal of Shiites and Kurds after the Persian Gulf War; U.S. forces remain bogged down in Afghanistan after dislodging the Taliban regime in that brilliant, brief campaign of 2001.

An overarching lesson is that the failure of diplomacy is not a sufficient argument for war. It seems as evident today as it was four years ago that sanctions on Saddam Hussein's regime were eroding and that the U.N. Security Council had no appetite to prolong "containment" in any meaningful form. David Kay's postwar report suggests that Saddam Hussein would have used the resulting loosening of bonds to build a dangerous arsenal. Yet we should have considered that not as an argument for war but only as a predicate for beginning to weigh war's risks and benefits.

Such weighing must include a far more aggressive challenge to prevailing wisdom than we offered. We were not wrong that Iraqis, like all human beings, crave freedom. But people also crave security. Their loyalties to country may jockey with loyalties to tribe and sect. We may have underestimated the impoverishment brought about by misrule and sanctions and the brutalization born of totalitarian cruelty. We underestimated, too, the regime's determination to fight back and its resourcefulness in doing so.

Clearly we were insufficiently skeptical of intelligence reports. It would almost be comforting if Mr. Bush had "lied the nation into war," as is frequently charged. The best postwar journalism instead suggests that the president and his administration exaggerated, cherry-picked and simplified but fundamentally believed -- as did the CIA -- the catastrophically wrong case that then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell presented to the United Nations.

The question that Gen. David H. Petraeus posed (as recounted in Rick Atkinson's history, "In the Company of Soldiers") as he led the troops of his 101st Airborne Division from Kuwait across the Iraq border, "Tell me how this ends?" -- that question must be the first to be asked, not the last. The answer won't always be knowable. But the discussion must never lose sight of the inevitable horrors of war. It must not be left to the generals in the field. And it must assume, based on experience from Germany to Korea to Afghanistan, that a U.S. commitment, once embarked upon, will not soon be over.

We raised such issues in our prewar editorials but with insufficient force. In February 2003, for example, we wrote that "the president [must] finally address, squarely and in public, the question of how Iraq will be secured and governed after a war that removes Saddam Hussein, and what the U.S. commitment to that effort will be. . . . Who will rule Iraq, and how? Who will provide security? How long will U.S. troops remain? . . . Many of these questions appear not to have been answered even inside the administration. . . ." They were still unanswered when the war, which we nevertheless supported, began. That should never happen again.

Even now, though, many of the lessons that others draw from Iraq do not strike us as obvious.

Unquestionably, for example, the experience has shown the risks of preemptive war. Yet it remains true in an era of ruthless, suicidal terrorists and easily smuggled weapons of unimaginable destructive power that not acting also can be dangerous. The risks of war with North Korea or Iran are evident; but the cost of leaving nuclear weapons in the hands of a Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or a Kim Jong Il may not become evident until the price has been paid. And while Iraq illustrates the importance of challenging intelligence estimates, there will also be risks in waiting for certainty that may never be achievable.

Similarly, Iraq has shown the disadvantages of acting without full allied support. Multilateralism and U.N. authorization are force multipliers, morally and literally; unilateralism should be a last resort. But ask the victims of genocide in Darfur whether international law and multinational organizations can always be counted upon. And, yes, the past four years have demonstrated the difficulty of seeding democracy in unaccustomed soil. But no American foreign policy will be supported at home or abroad if it does not include as one ambition the spread of freedom.

Unfortunately, none of this provides bright guidelines to make the next decisions easier -- not even those facing the nation right now in Iraq. It's tempting to say that if it was wrong to go in, it must be wrong to stay in. But how Iraq evolves will fundamentally shape the region and deeply affect U.S. security. Walking away is likely to make a bad situation worse. A patient, sustained U.S. commitment, with gradually diminishing military forces, could still help Iraq to move in the right direction.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company