Aired on KERA-FM (NPR) Dallas, Texas in 2006
What are the lessons of the war in Iraq? These occur to me:
Number one: Do not go to war if you don’t have to without understanding first the history of the nation you are about to convert into the enemy. A reading of Winston Churchill’s experience in Iraq along with that of Gertrude Bell when they were trying to set up a government to run the mandate acquired by Britain after World War I would have been instructive. While Gertrude Bell and Churchill were working to bring Prince Faisal into the country from Saudi Arabia as king, half of Iraq was wracked by bloody insurrection. There was no reason three years ago not to expect the same thing again.
Number two: Do not go to war if you don’t have to without understanding the culture of the country you are about to invade. It would have been useful to know more about the depth of Baathist sentiment in Saddam’s party–how many were true believers in him, how many were along for the ride because it was the only available horse. It would have been helpful to have a better grasp of the clerics–which ones actually functioned like warlords. And, of course, it would have been a good idea to have some appreciation of the museums and cultural institutions that would require immediate protection.
Third: Allow plenty of time to prepare for battle. Don’t rush into anything. The British fleet took several days to make its way to the Falklands in 1982. Hence there was an important interregnum in which to consider what to do next. More to the point, the first President Bush took from August 1990 to January 1991, five months, to amass 500,000 troops in Saudi Arabia from which they would stage the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi invaders. This permitted time for President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker to assemble a coalition of 34 nations, including seven from the Middle East.
Fourth: Do not fall into the trap of believing that because you have deployed forces to an area of potential conflict, you must activate those forces. It’s expensive to maintain them in foreign places, yes, but not nearly as expensive as a war itself.
Fifth: Don’t set arbitrary deadlines, based on problems like the weather. We had to move ahead with the attack on Iraq in March, 2003, we were told, because the summer heat was coming, and our troops couldn’t fight in such punishing temperatures. But what have our troops been doing, for three summers, going on four, ever since?
Sixth: Be careful what you say in the prelude to war. An absolute threat to attack if certain conditions are not met by a certain date can box you in, so that you have to go to war or lose all credibility.
Seventh: Don’t refuse to listen to members of your administration who have led a war in exactly the same region where you plan to fight. Colin Powell was right: Overwhelming force really is required.
These are the seven lessons of Iraq. Without attention to them, an exit strategy and the sustained support of the people will be impossible.