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This month marked the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. To the surprise of virtually all the war’s supporters, coalition forces are still present in Iraq. They are working to stabilize a country that appears to be on the brink of civil war. The continuing chaos and ever-growing number of fatalities are reminders of the need for patience in tackling difficult international problems. Iraq is sad proof of the need for humility in foreign policy.

The invasion of Iraq proceeded as planned. A relatively small invasion force managed to steamroll Saddam Hussein’s army, which dissolved after showing no stomach for a fight. Coalition forces were greeted as liberators — the image of jubilant Iraqis toppling a statue of Hussein and pounding it with sledgehammers is iconic. Hussein fled, along with his government.

The impact of those initial successes quickly faded. The chaos and looting that followed the invasion was dismissed by then U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as the inevitable “stuff that happens” when a long-suppressed people are liberated. But when the suspected weapons of mass destruction were not found, it became clear that they never existed.

To their credit, the Iraqi people availed themselves of every opportunity to make use of their newly implanted democracy, casting heroic and historic votes for a constitution and a representative assembly. But plans for a quick withdrawal of foreign forces were thwarted by a growing resistance movement that has only gathered strength over the past four years. Today, Iraq is on the brink of — if not already immersed in — a civil war. Dreams of Iraq serving as an incubator for democracy in the Middle East have burst.

The miscalculations that skewed U.S. planning have had high costs — in addition to the hundreds of billions of dollars spent. The record of British Prime Minister Tony Blair is likely to be dominated by his decision to back the invasion. The invasion and its aftermath will be the primary legacy of several U.S. politicians and bureaucrats: Mr. Rumsfeld, his deputy Mr. Paul Wolfowitz, and former CIA Director George Tenet.

The government of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar fell in 2004 as a result of its mishandling of bombings in Madrid that were linked to the war. Those political “lives” pale beside the thousands of soldiers from the coalition forces that have lost their lives and the tens of thousands of Iraqis — the exact count is unknown and the number could be in the hundreds of thousands — who have been killed since the invasion began.

Equally damaged has been the U.S. image and its credibility in the world. On Sept. 12, 2001, the world rallied behind the United States, and pledged support in the fight against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. Four years later, Washington is increasingly isolated, its motives suspect and its policies challenged when they are not ignored. The U.S. has lost its moral authority. Its leadership is questioned and its competence suspect. Its military has been badly weakened by the continuing deployments; military leaders worry that their forces are not prepared for another contingency elsewhere in the world.

The decision to redeploy troops from Afghanistan to Iraq undermined efforts to stabilize that country. As a result, worries have increased about Afghanistan’s future and the re-emergence of the Taliban. Terrorists appear rejuvenated by their performance in a war waged against the U.S. in Iraq. Iran is a new contender for power in the Persian Gulf. In every dimension, then, U.S. power and influence has been damaged.

The war has had a different impact on Japan. Yes, we have been horrified by the continuing instability in Iraq and the rising death toll. The weakening of the U.S. is equally grievous. After initial hostilities had ended, this country dispatched Self-Defense Forces to assist in the reconstruction of Iraq. This experience in Iraq has led the Japanese government to consider the new international security role that it thinks Japan can and should play.

In a speech marking the fourth anniversary earlier this month, U.S. President George W. Bush asked for additional patience. He continues to believe that the U.S. can be victorious, but “only if we have the courage and resolve to see it through.” He has called for more troops to help secure the most violent parts of Iraq in hopes that they will provide the stability that has been missing. It is a long overdue change of course; some worry that it is too late.

We hope the change of course succeeds. The world cannot afford failure in Iraq. But the lesson of this awful episode in human history is the need for careful consideration of and far more respect for how things can deviate from plans. In short, Iraq should teach us greater humility in foreign policy.

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