Editorial Column: Learning the Lessons of Iraq

Bruce Blog

Sept. 6, 2008, New York – The Iraq war has been replaced by the declining economy as the most important issue in America’s presidential election campaign, in part because Americans have come to believe that the tide has turned in Iraq: the troop “surge” has supposedly cowed the insurgents, bringing a decline in violence. The implications are clear: a show of power wins the day.

It is precisely this kind of macho reasoning that led America to war in Iraq in the first place. The war was meant to demonstrate the strategic power of military might. Instead, the war showed its limitations. Moreover, the war undermined America’s real source of power – its moral authority.

Recent events have reinforced the risks in the Bush administration’s approach. It was always clear that the timing of America’s departure from Iraq might not be its choice – unless it wanted to violate international law once again. Now, Iraq is demanding that American combat troops leave within twelve months, with all troops out in 2011.

To be sure, the reduction in violence is welcome, and the surge in troops may have played some role. Yet the level of violence, were it taking place anywhere else in the world, would make headlines; only in Iraq have we become so inured to violence that it is a good day if only 25 civilians get killed.

And the role of the troop surge in reducing violence in Iraq is not clear. Other factors were probably far more important, including buying off Sunni insurgents so that they fight with the United States against Al Qaeda. But that remains a dangerous strategy. The US should be working to create a strong, unified government, rather than strengthening sectarian militias. Now the Iraqi government has awakened to the dangers, and has begun arresting some of the leaders whom the American government has been supporting. The prospects of a stable future look increasingly dim.

That is the key point: the surge was supposed to provide space for a political settlement, which would provide the foundations of long-term stability. That political settlement has not occurred. So, as with the arguments used to justify the war, and the measures of its success, the rationale behind surge, too, keeps shifting.

Meanwhile, the military and economic opportunity costs of this misadventure become increasingly clear. Even if the US had achieved stability in Iraq, this would not have assured victory in the “war on terrorism,” let alone success in achieving broader strategic objectives. Things have not been going well in Afghanistan, to say the least, and Pakistan looks ever more unstable.

Moreover, most analysts agree that at least part of the rationale behind Russia’s invasion of Georgia, reigniting fears of a new Cold War, was its confidence that, with America’s armed forces pre-occupied with two failing wars (and badly depleted because of a policy of not replacing military resources as fast as they are used up), there was little America could do in response. Russia’s calculations proved correct.

Even the largest and richest country in the world has limited resources. The Iraq war has been financed entirely on credit; and partly because of that, the US national debt has increased by two-thirds in just eight years.

But things keep getting worse: the deficit for 2009 alone is expected to be more than a half-trillion dollars, excluding the costs of financial bail-outs and the second stimulus package that almost all economists now say is urgently needed. The war, and the way it has been conducted, has reduced America’s room for maneuver, and will almost surely deepen and prolong the economic downturn.

The belief that the surge was successful is especially dangerous because the Afghanistan war is going so poorly. America’s European allies are tiring of the endless battles and mounting casualties. Most European leaders are not as practiced in the art of deception as the Bush administration; they have greater difficulty hiding the numbers from their citizens.

The British, for example, are well aware of the problems that they repeatedly encountered in their imperial era in Afghanistan. America will, of course, continue to put pressure on its allies, but democracy has a way of limiting the effectiveness of such pressure. Popular opposition to the Iraq war made it impossible for Mexico and Chile to give into American pressure at the United Nations to endorse the invasion; the citizens of these countries were proven right.

But back in America, the belief that the surge “worked” is now leading many to argue that more troops are needed in Afghanistan. True, the war in Iraq distracted America’s attention from Afghanistan. But the failures in Iraq are a matter of strategy, not troop strength. It is time for America, and Europe, to learn the lessons of Iraq – or, rather, relearn the lessons of virtually every country that tries to occupy another and determine its future.

Joseph E. Stiglitz, professor of economics at Columbia University, and recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics, is co-author, with Linda Bilmes, of The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Costs of the Iraq Conflict.

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