Let’s learn the right lessons from Iraq

By Ryan McCarl

The failure of the American adventure in Iraq has prompted much soul-searching in foreign policy circles, but precious few are looking below the surface of our recent troubles. What are the lessons policymakers and citizens should draw from the American experience in Iraq?

Surely the right lesson is not to “send in more troops earlier next time.” Questions of troop numbers, equipment quality, withdrawal timetables, and counterinsurgency methods are important, to be sure, but they are ultimately superficial. Neither these questions nor their answers strike at the heart of the Iraq failure, and they are therefore not the questions that most urgently need to be asked.

It is time to question some of the fundamental assumptions and strategic aims of American foreign policy. The real lesson of the Iraq war is that some of these assumptions are fatally flawed, irrelevant, or illogical. As the violence in Iraq heats up and the date of America’s inevitable withdrawal draws nearer, it is our responsibility to examine each and every one of the theories and assumptions that drive American foreign policy and hold each of America’s global commitments up to the light to see if that commitment is a net benefit for our national security.

The first assumption that we ought to question is the doctrine of “American exceptionalism”: the idea that American power does not threaten other nations because of our uniquely good sense, moral rectitude, and genuine desire to spread liberty and human rights.

Only Americans believe in American exceptionalism. Others find the exercise of U.S. military power to be threatening and dangerous, whatever our benign intentions. Iran is supplying arms and training to Iraqi militias fighting against American troops. Why? Because Iranians hate freedom, as the Bush administration would have us believe? Perhaps a sounder explanation would be that the U.S. is threatening Iran both verbally and militarily, and it has an enormous military presence in two countries that border Iran as well as in the Persian Gulf. By working to keep America entangled in Iraq, Iran is merely acting prudently to prevent America’s crosshairs from being turned to Tehran.

The second assumption that needs to be questioned is the American faith in the power of democracy promotion as a fundamental tenet of U.S. foreign policy. I’ll be the first to defend the values of democratic liberalism and the universality of human rights, but there is no evidence that democracies are less war-prone than nondemocracies or more likely to support U.S. aims.

Recent events in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Palestinian Territories clearly show that the rise of democratic governments does not necessarily lead to outcomes more favorable to American interests. The neoconservative policy of crusading to impose democratic institutions from the top down upon people and cultures we do not understand is a policy designed to fail.

Finally, the third fundamental assumption the Iraq War should lead us to question is that of the necessity and value of America’s many global security commitments. The rapid rise of China and the necessity of preventing an arms race in East Asia is a solid and clear-cut reason to maintain the American military presence in Japan. Can a similar argument still be made for our substantial military presence in Western Europe?

Similarly, what concrete goals are we still hoping to accomplish by staying in Iraq? Why is war with Iran even a remote possibility, given the almost universal consensus that any benefits to be reaped by bombing Iran would be far outstripped by the costs?

The fundamental aims of American security policy are defending the homeland against terrorism and invasion and working to prevent another war between great powers. Let us hope that the main lesson our leaders learn from the Iraq War is that we need to refocus on these goals and avoid costly distractions and hubristic crusades.