As North Korea seems to move closer to crisis by the day, the United States and its allies are struggling with how to avert a war. They also find themselves wondering what would happen if, despite their best intentions, they did decide to wage war.
There’s a good place to look for answers to that question: Iraq. In the 10 years since U.S. and international forces invaded Iraq, the nation has, by any standard, invested substantial “blood and treasure” in Iraq: hundreds of billions of dollars spent, tens of thousands of soldiers injured and maimed, and more than 4,000 Americans killed. The enormous casualties have provoked doubts and protests in democracies around the world, followed by a divisive public debate about whether the war was “worth it.”
So before we consider any further military action in North Korea, here are several lessons from the Iraq War to think about.
1. Beware of wars that seem “easy.”
While Iraq was a significant military power, the outcome was never in doubt: American military superiority would defeat Saddam Hussein’s military forces in Iraq. And, we thought, rebuilding after that defeat would be easy. We were wrong. Indeed, the real work began only after the war, during the insurgency. That’s when thousands of Americans died, and Iraq came perilously close to an all-out civil war.
2. Americans are better at conquering than liberating.
The deeply ingrained strategic mindset of the American people and their leaders is to defeat an enemy by military force, and only then think about postwar conditions. In practice, this “culture of war” means that the nation organizes the resources it needs to defeat the opponent, but then refocuses on domestic peace and prosperity back home. For example, the U.S. demobilized virtually all of its millions of soldiers right after World War II and only grudgingly, in the face of fears of confrontation with the Soviet Union, remobilized its military for the Cold War.
After the successful invasion of Iraq, American policymakers believed that the Iraqi people must want to move beyond the terror of Saddam Hussein’s regime. They must want peace and security — and, above all else, democracy. Wasn’t that what everyone wanted, just like us? Instead, the United States watched Iraq descend almost immediately into sectarian civil war and chaos.
Iraqis didn’t use liberation from Saddam’s rule as a chance to build their own society with the political and economic freedom necessary for peace and security; instead, most Iraqis used the post-invasion period as an opportunity to settle old scores. The result was a brutal insurgency, bombings, and the deaths of tens of thousands.
Conditions in Iraq point to a new lesson: When military operations end, that’s when the real hostilities begin.
3. Democracies may bail at the first signs of trouble.
Sadly, all democracies, while highly resilient and dynamic, often suffer from a lack of confidence and staying power when the costs of a policy exceed what the public expects. As Iraq deteriorated with the insurgency, many from all parts of the political spectrum called for the U.S. to withdraw, to resist pressures to supply additional forces, to seek some accommodation with the insurgents and even to partition Iraq.
Here, too, the lesson is clear: Leaders must consider not only what they hope to accomplish, but also what they think the public is willing to bear.
4. The Iraq War exposed a deep ideological divide in America.
It is truly distressing to realize that there is no consensus in American society on foreign policy. Though Saddam Hussein threatened his neighbors and slaughtered his own people, Americans are deeply divided on the invasion of Iraq. Some believe that intervention, though painful and costly, was the right thing to do. Others consider it a grave error. It is difficult to reconcile these views.
And yet there is no substitute for policies guided by resolve, clear strategic thinking and an exquisite sense of what the nation should accomplish. What, then is the lesson here? Effective communication with the public is essential, for no policy can succeed for long without broad public support.
So, was it worth it? This, after all, is the fundamental question. But it’s not easy to say. For now, Iraq shows signs of political and sectarian turmoil. It faces a hostile Iran, a restive Turkey, and an Egypt seeking to build a strategic relationship with Iran. On the other hand, the Arab Spring, at least in the case of Egypt, has given millions a chance to move toward freedom and prosperity. Despite its own turbulence, we can hope that Iraq might use this moment to build a democracy in a part of the world where democracies are few and far between.
American society still struggles with whether something good might come out of the Iraq War. For me, the fundamental lesson is that the U.S. cannot conduct an effective foreign policy when its citizenry is so deeply divided about what ought to be done. We acted in Vietnam without resolve or consensus and we ended up with a fractured society. We ignored that lesson when we invaded Iraq. And again we were — and in some ways still are — a nation divided. Do we need to act in North Korea? Perhaps the lesson is that we should get these lessons straight before we intervene in wars that rip American society apart.