It has been six years since the United States led a coalition of forces into Iraq. The euphoria that followed the easy defeat of the Iraq Army gave way to dismay and disgust as “Phase 4” of the operation — the postconflict stage — fell apart and Iraq disintegrated. A misreading of the situation along with tactical and strategic blunders resulted in civil war and a bloody occupation. Fortunately, some of the most egregious mistakes have been corrected; sadly, the damage has not been undone. The question now is what lessons have we learned from the Iraqi misadventure.
The invasion of Iraq has profoundly affected international relations. Much damage has been done to the reputation of the U.S. Its image as a nation that respects the rule of law has been tarnished. Many Muslims, some one-third of the world’s population, see the U.S. as hostile to their religion. Eight years of continuous conflict since 9/11 have strained U.S. military resources, undermined morale and exposed U.S. vulnerabilities. Most significantly, the promise to deliver freedom and democracy, security and stability to the Iraqi people has not been kept.
Meanwhile, Iran’s position in the Persian Gulf has been strengthened. Its longtime rival, Iraq, has been weakened. The Shiite-led government in Baghdad now looks more sympathetically at its neighbor.
Equally important, the controversy that surrounded the U.S. claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction — a claim that was believed by other governments — has made it more difficult to challenge Iran’s suspected efforts to develop an indigenous nuclear capability.
The effects are felt beyond the Persian Gulf. Tehran’s newfound confidence has emboldened its allies in the Middle East. It’s no coincidence that Hamas and Hezbollah have been especially aggressive in recent years. The flip side of Iran’s strength is the diminished capacity of the U.S. to balance that assertiveness. Not only is the U.S. distracted, but people throughout the region do not see Washington as a neutral or objective mediator.
Further away, governments in Beijing and Moscow have concluded that the U.S. has been weakened by the Iraqi misadventure, its international status diminished and its military weakened. They have seized the moment to press their own diplomatic and geostrategic advantages.
Even relations among allies have been strained. Tokyo and Seoul (along with other allies and friends in Asia) worry that the U.S. has not paid sufficient attention to the Asia-Pacific region. There is a perception that Washington has twisted their arms to back U.S. policy. Even more troubling is a belief that the failures in Iraq have emboldened other adversaries — such as Pyongyang as it continues its nuclear diplomacy — and pressed Washington to make unwise concessions in an effort to find a diplomatic victory.
The lessons from Iraq should also include a recognition of the limits of military power. The strongest military in the world is unable to dictate outcomes, even when it does prevail in a conflict. Iraq’s inability to govern itself and to provide for the peace and security of its citizens is a reminder that winning the peace is as important as winning a war.
Politicians cannot afford to dismiss “nation building” as a distraction for soldiers or as a secondary political priority. Reconstruction of a society is every bit as important — if not more so — as the destruction of its will to fight.
This new emphasis on postconflict engagement has profound implications for Japan. This nation has struggled to find the appropriate contribution to international security. Iraq should demonstrate that Japan is able to make essential contributions without violating — or even stretching — the principles of its war-renouncing Constitution. Rebuilding societies, helping lay a foundation for economic development, training police forces that ensure security for local communities are the building blocks of peace. These are Japan’s strengths.
We have also learned that the fate of a country depends on its citizens. They must choose the best form of government that suits their particular circumstances. Those decisions cannot be imposed without regard to the unique characteristics of each society. That requires the rest of the world to understand the particulars of that country, working with its citizens to construct a society that is best suited to them. Ultimately, the future of the country is in their hands.
Iraqis greeted the U.S.-led invasion force as liberators. And just two years later, they turned out in stunning numbers to vote in the first free elections in their country in decades. Iraq’s future depends on the harnessing of that energy and that desire, and working with the majority of Iraqi people to help them build a peaceful and prosperous society. The most important lesson of the last six years is that doing that requires considerable amounts of patience, energy and money. There are no “slam dunks” or instant solutions.
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