What did we learn?


Ten years ago this week, the United States invaded Iraq. We said that our cause was just — that we were ridding the world of a brutal and deranged tyrant, Saddam Hussein.

We were engaging in pre-emptive war, a dangerous idea. But we were told Saddam possessed “weapons of mass destruction,” and prevention was necessary.

We were told U.S. troops would be greeted with sweets and flowers in the streets of Baghdad; at first, they were. We were told the war would be over in a week; at first, it appeared it would be. Remember “shock and awe”?

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But that’s not how it went. There were no weapons of mass destruction; that, we were told later, was an “intelligence failure.” The war lasted most of a decade, and 4,488 Americans died.

Some 32,000 soldiers came home but were wounded; thousands of them are maimed and crippled for life. Thanks to modern medicine, they live on as the walking wounded — quadriplegics, paraplegics, and victims of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The civilian casualties in Iraq were so huge that no one has been able to tabulate an accurate number. The war destroyed mosques and made a new generation of enemies.

And for what? Is our country safer? Is our national interest more secure in the Middle East? Is Iraq better off?

Many so-called neo-conservatives and former officials of the George W. Bush administration answer yes to all three questions. But according to a recent Gallup poll, most Americans believe the Iraq War was not worth fighting.

During his confirmation hearing, the new Defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, made this extraordinary statement: “Our war in Iraq, I think, was the most fundamentally bad, dangerous decision since Vietnam.” As a senator, Mr. Hagel voted for the Iraq invasion, but then became a harsh critic of the war.

This was the march of folly on a grand scale. What did we learn from it?

How about: Think twice. Question intelligence, and then ask for more. Base policy on information. Do not cook intelligence to fit what you want it to be.

Don’t rush to war — in Iran, in North Korea, in Syria. Foreign and military policy has no place for people who think everything can be talked through, or who go in with guns blazing and ask questions later. That is the lesson of Iraq 10 years out: Have a strategy for winning the war, and a strategy for ending it.

There is pressure today on President Obama to “do something” about Iran and North Korea. Many onlookers say we are not doing enough to help the rebels in Syria.

But “do something” is not a plan with an objective that can be achieved and concluded in reasonable time. Doing something often leads to quagmire.

Forget unintended consequences; Iraq lacked an intended one. What do we intend for Syria, and who do we think can achieve it?

Sometimes there is no clear path to victory, no good guy to back, nothing we can do that will truly make the situation better. There are limits even to great power. And that is a hard thing, humanly and politically, to admit.

So we blunder into wars we cannot win in places we do not understand. And the people we imagine to be sitting in darkness do not always feel grateful when the bombs marked for their betterment begin to fall.

Think twice and think again: That’s the lesson of Iraq.