Learn the Right Lessons from Past Wars

Why must we keep learning the same lessons over and over again? Vietnam. Iraq. Afghanistan.

By now all sides of the political spectrum ought to acknowledge that it is a lot easier to send the world’s most powerful military into a country than it is to get it out.

We also ought to know by now that promoting democracy in other countries means that when democratic elections take place we don’t control the results.

What brings these thoughts to mind are the recent questions about how Iraq is doing since we left. The date for our withdrawal of troops last month was, of course, specifically established in a treaty with Iraq signed by the Bush administration. While there were some discussions about keeping some forces in the country after Dec. 31, 2011, it was opposed by the democratically elected government of Iraq for domestic political reasons.

Now some are insisting we should not have left. In fact, one presidential candidate says we should send our troops back in! They dismiss the treaty as irrelevant or say the current administration didn’t negotiate hard enough to rewrite it. They seem to believe that if we stay for enough more years, we will finally be rewarded with a stable, friendly, multi-cultural democracy.

These are often the same people who believed eight years ago that we could use military might to create democracies throughout the Middle East. Well, they now have a democratically elected government in Iraq, and it is a classic case of being careful what you wish for.

None of us wanted Prime Minister Maliki, but his selection was the result of the Iraqi brand of democracy. It has been clear for years that he has never been committed to a meaningful role for the Sunnis and Kurds in the government of Iraq. He has used criticism of the U.S. for political advantage, is too close to Iran, is blind to corruption by his friends, and on and on.

The situation is similar to that in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai became President in a scandal-plagued election, but we still have to deal with him. He is much like Maliki, although he cares even less about stopping corruption. His primary concern is to protect his political base in the Pashtun tribe.

I learned in numerous discussions in 2009 and 2010 with both Maliki and Karzai that they were very aware of our American commitment to democracy. They knew that once elections were held and they were in power, we could do little to intimidate them.

In the 19th century, countries like Great Britain, France and Germany rarely considered democracy for the country they invaded. They appointed a governor, garrisoned an army to maintain control, and took away raw materials or whatever else they wanted. It was an unsustainable model, but for years it worked.
Our principles, and the realities of 21st century geopolitics, make that that kind of colonialism impossible. But we are nevertheless frustrated when we see that after our enormous sacrifices we cannot control what goes on.

Our most lasting military successes recently have relied on the partitioning of hostile groups. In Korea, Bosnia and Kosovo we have had troops on the ground for years patrolling the partition lines, maintaining peace, with few casualties. I will always believe that the adoption of then-Senator Biden’s 2006 plan to divide Iraq into three separate regions — Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni — with a central government in Baghdad, would have increased our odds of leaving a peaceful Iraq.

Military force will be an important element of U.S foreign policy for a long time to come, but we must be smarter about how we use it. Getting in and out quickly, as we did in Panama and the Osama Bin Laden raid, is a good template. So is using superior technology — surveillance satellites and Predator type unmanned aircraft — instead of ground forces. Our “Arab Spring” success in Libya is another good model. We were asked for help from people who were being systematically killed. We provided that help as part of a true coalition of countries. We limited our involvement to air power, and managed to achieve our goal of getting rid of Gaddafi without the loss of American lives.

Introducing troops is a lot easier than removing them. Democratic elections don’t always produce the results we would like. Let’s hope we have finally learned those lessons for good.

Originally published 21 Jan 2012 on delawareonline.com