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What We Learned in Iraq “catastrophic success.”
March 18, 2013, 7:46 am
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What We Learned in Iraq:

Ten years ago this week, Americans were about to be introduced
to a strange new concept, as they awaited the U.S. war to bring
regime change in Iraq. Coined by American military officers, it
encapsulated a situation in which everything went right until
everything went wrong. The term was “catastrophic success.”
But before the war began, supporters were bursting with
confidence. Vice President Dick Cheney predicted that “we will, in
fact, be greeted as liberators.” The Pentagon expected to withdraw
most troops by summer’s end. Reconstruction would be a bargain
because Iraq would pay for it with oil revenues.
Wrong, wrong and wrong again. By the time we finally left Iraq,
more than eight years had elapsed, 4,486 Americans had died and
$1.7 trillion had gone up the chimney. Despite our success in
removing Saddam Hussein from power, the Iraq war stands as the
nation’s most grievous foreign policy blunder since Vietnam.
It was the result of a toxic
combination of ignorance, arrogance and impatience. But with the
exception of Cheney and a few others, those traits are far less
pronounced today. The public and policymakers learned much from the
experience, and the lessons have stuck.
Iraq became, as novelist David Foster Wallace would put it, a
supposedly fun thing we’ll never do again. It dramatized the
dangers of plunging into a major war in the absence of a powerful
national interest. It exposed the hazards of a long-term occupation
in an alien culture. It showed the need to consider the worst-case
Americans underwent a similar disillusionment from the Vietnam
War, which left an aversion to intervention that conservatives
lamented as “the Vietnam syndrome.” But because our failure
occurred during the Cold War, it was taken as a victory for world
communism. The country split between those who thought it was
doomed from the start and those who believed we could have won if
not for the appeasers and draft-dodgers back home.
Regret for the Iraq war is far more widespread. At the
beginning, 62 percent of Americans supported the invasion — with
most erroneously believing that Hussein was involved in the 9/11
attacks. Just three years later, 63 percent said the war was a
There is clearly an “Iraq syndrome” today, but it’s not really
controversial. After more than a decade of war in Iraq and
Afghanistan, not many people are itching to relive the experience
President Barack Obama, who opposed the invasion of Iraq,
encountered little resistance to winding up the U.S. mission there,
and he faces little as U.S. troops stream toward the door in
Obama took note of the Iraq disaster in addressing Libya, where
liberal as well as conservative hawks urged him to use force
against dictator Moammar Gadhafi. His defense secretary publicly
questioned the option, and Obama drew criticism for his reluctance
to intervene.
When he finally did, it was on novel terms: He insisted that our
allies take the lead, kept our role to a minimum, avoided U.S.
casualties and wrapped it up before the commercial break.
Crucial to that approach was his refusal to deploy ground troops
or assume the slightest responsibility for what happened next in
Libya. He’s been even warier in Syria: To be persuaded to use air
power, Obama would need an implement measuring at least 11 feet,
since he wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.
All this reflects a sharp shift in popular sentiment.
Summarizing the results of a poll it sponsored last year, the
Chicago Council on Global Affairs reported that “with a strong
sense that the wars have overstretched our military and strained
our economic resources, (Americans) prefer to avoid the use of
military force if at all possible.”
There is one notable exception: Iran. Obama has vowed to do
whatever it takes to prevent the mullahs from getting nuclear
weapons, and most Americans favor military action if Iran doesn’t
give up that quest.
The key here is that everyone figures we can do the job from the
safety of the skies. If it called for large numbers of boots on the
ground, we’d resign ourselves to Iranian nukes — which we may
That’s a symptom of how we’ve changed since Cheney and Co. were
in office. In a new documentary, he affirms, in a reference that
includes Iraq, “If I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a
minute.” The rest of us? Not a chance.


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