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University students march through Kim Il Sung Square in downtown Pyongyang, North Korea, on Friday, March 29, 2013. Tens of thousands of North Koreans turned out for the mass rally at the main square in Pyongyang in support of their leader Kim Jong Un’s call to arms. (AP)

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.

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.

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.

In this Saturday, March 16, 2013 photo, two suspected members of al-Qaida sit bound and blindfolded in the back of an Iraqi SWAT vehicle after a raid in Latifiyah, Iraq. An al-Qaida-affiliated group in Iraq claimed responsibility for a carefully planned assault on the Justice Ministry in downtown Baghdad earlier that week. The attack came less than a week before the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, showing how vulnerable the country remains to insurgent attacks. (Alaa al-Marjani/AP)

In this Saturday, March 16, 2013 photo, two suspected members of al-Qaida sit bound and blindfolded in the back of an Iraqi SWAT vehicle after a raid in Latifiyah, Iraq. An al-Qaida-affiliated group in Iraq claimed responsibility for a carefully planned assault on the Justice Ministry in downtown Baghdad earlier that week. The attack came less than a week before the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, showing how vulnerable the country remains to insurgent attacks. (Alaa al-Marjani/AP)

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.

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Tags: Middle East, Security

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  • http://www.facebook.com/geraldleach Gerald Leach

    For me, the lesson was known in advance (and completely missed in this analysis). Our military power is appropriately used for simple objectives: killing people and breaking things (and the threat of both). When the mission changes to regime change, nation-building, installing democracy, etc. the costs (again, blood & treasure) skyrocket. I was a supporter of military force in Iraq when the mission was clear: find and eradicate the WMD that the world (including most Iraqis) believed were there. The mission should have been to search for and destroy WMD (or any other perceivable threat to our troops/interests in the region; killing/breaking anything that got in our way of doing that. When the search was over, we should have packed our things and left; leaving the message of “wouldn’t cooperating with us have been much easier?” No regime change. No installing democracy. No drawn out “security” mission. No paying for any damage caused. When war is justified, it’s supposed be ugly. It’s supposed to be bloody. It’s supposed to be horrific. It’s those natures of it that are supposed to deter us (both sides) from seeking to engage in it. Had we left a path of devastation carrying out a simple mission (executing our search warrant to eradicate any/all WMD) and skipped the politics, Iraq might still be under Hussein’s reign, but our troops would be home, there’d have been far less death (on both sides), and the message would have clearly been delivered that you can’t threaten our security – period. As North Korea’s rhetoric and posturing continues, I hope those lessons from Iraq have sunk in. I’m not opposed to preemptive strikes on missile sites and nuke facilities, I am vehemently opposed to any talk of regime change and/or full on invasion.

  • http://www.justinlocke.com/author.htm Justin Locke

    Not to seem overly contrarian, I was just wondering why you limited your analysis to the Iraq War. After all, the civil war led to reconstruction, WWI and the Treaty of Versailles led to Hitler’s rise to power, the end of WWII led to the Cold War, decades of oppression in Eastern Europe, the First Indochina war (later known as Viet Nam) as well as the Arab-Israeli conflict . . . then there was the missed op in Afghanistan when we helped them defeat Russia. Yes, I agree with you, just thinking of so many more even larger examples to support your argument. Also I’m pretty sure that technically, the original Korean War never officially ended, it has just been put on hold, yes? Wars are always promoted by those who have something to gain in the short term. The long term cost, especially of the loss of loved ones, and the physical injuries and PTSD of the people who fight them, has been born the most by those who gain the least.

  • http://marijuanamanifest.com/ Killer Bud

    Been trying to follow the drum beating in North Korea on the news. It got me to wondering.
    We preemptively occupied Iraq under the context of taking away their ability to manufacture/use a wmd.

    During those same early years, North Korea defied the world by building
    a nuclear “power plant” then going rogue on the plant, and started
    making nuclear bombs, and high range missile technology.
    It almost seems like the whole terrorist agenda was a diversion while the real threat was able to build an arsenal.

    Albeit under America’s desire to be the policemen of the world. Making
    sure we do not let other countries build atomic weapons, because they
    might “use them on another country.” Yet, America is the only country to
    use an atomic weapon against another country.
    Meanwhile in Iraq,
    after spending trillions of dollars, Iraq has become the second largest
    exporter of oil in the world, and 80% of it is going to China…
    Anyone else kinda think we dropped the ball on this one?

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      just because american gasoline consumers did not benefit dont think that was not a asuccessful war for oil

  • King

    No chance for north koreans to defeat USA, and sadly, they dont know it. Feel sad this will be a one day war, and north korea will dissappear, but millions of people will suffer.

  • Pointpanic

    THis essay is based on the assumption that the US invaded Iraq for humanitarian reasons. Not so. The democracy card was Bush’s last hand after his intial rationales- WMDS and collaboration with al Qeada were discredited before we even invaded.Yes, Old Sadie was a brutal tyrant. But that never stopped the US elites from supplying him with weapons and intelligence through some of his worst crimes.Even if America was 100% behind the war, it still would have been unethical and wasteful. It saddens me that an intellectual like William C. Martel is unwilling to raise the critical questions about why we invaded in the first place. Notice how he also fails to mention the number of Iraqis called and traumatized by our invasion.Yes, the same thing happened in Vietnam. And it’s going to happen again in either Pakistan, North Korea or Iran ,sometime down the road as long as sycophantic media outlets like NPR and intellectuals like Mr. Martel displace critical inquiry with “hero’ stories and questions about whether it was “worth it” or not.. BTW. Why doesn’t “Cognoscenti “(misnomer) ever feature any anti-war voices?

  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    was this an opinion piece?

  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    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.
    no it would be more effective if our forign policy was not war

  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    Though Saddam Hussein threatened his neighbors and slaughtered his own people, Americans are deeply divided on the invasion of Iraq.
    hmm maybe thats because when we were sold the war using lies fear and hysteria we were told there was an emminent danger of saddam using WMDs on us. many of us knew this was BS so of course we would not support it. why cant this guy keep his story straight?

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