Whatever the eventual outcome of the Iraq War—a precipitous, politically driven withdrawal, a gradual counterinsurgency victory, or something in between—it is necessary to begin drawing some lessons. The first is unavoidable: Regime change is the most difficult of foreign policy options, the most fraught with unintended consequences, and the least suited to the American style of war. Regime removal, it turns out, is relatively easy, given our country's unrivaled military capabilities. But regime removal is different from regime change, which may require a massive and costly effort of nation building—especially when a society has been debilitated by decades of totalitarian rule. For nearly thirty years, Saddam Hussein instilled terror and distrust, fed divisions of clan and tribe, and encouraged the fears of the Sunni minority. Wounds so deep heal slowly and gradually, and only in an atmosphere of security and order—an atmosphere the Coalition did not initially provide.
Throughout most of my White House experience, I intuitively sided with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's combative confidence against Secretary of State Colin Powell's caution and diplomacy. But it is now clear to me that, despite its indisputable utility on today's battlefield, the Rumsfeld Doctrine, with its stress on light and flexible high-tech military power, is less well suited to an occupation like Iraq than are certain elements of the Powell Doctrine—especially the need for clear goals and overwhelming force. Defeating an insurgency is possible (a fact proven in Malaysia and El Salvador); and sometimes it is necessary. But this kind of counterinsurgency campaign cannot be conducted quickly or on the cheap. For years, lower-level officers had made the case that when American troops in Iraq came into an area and stayed, there was relative calm. But for years there were not enough troops to make that strategy work on a sufficient scale in Baghdad.
Another lesson concerns the power of dramatic acts of violence in a media age. Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi's strategy in Iraq, in the end—even after his own end—was successful. Al-Qaeda was not responsible for most of the attacks in Iraq, but it authored the most spectacular and bloody ones—the destruction of mosques, the carnage at busy markets. And this had two effects. It created images of hopeless chaos in the American media, undermining public support for the war. Even more destructively, the attacks fed sectarian divisions within Iraq at the expense of democratic aspirations. The attraction of freedom is powerful. But hatred is not without its appeal, either, especially in the absence of order. A small group of ruthless men proved capable of fanning that hatred through spectacular acts of murder …
Not long before I left the White House, the president put the situation to me bluntly: "If the definition of success is no bombings on TV, America is in trouble. If the definition of success is steady progress in Iraq toward self-sufficiency, we can win." This explains President Bush's emphasis on public resolve. "The most important thing to know," he continued, "is that I'm not going to waver." Resolve is not a substitute for effectiveness and competence in the War on Terror—but effectiveness and competence cannot prevail without it …
… There is also danger in learning the wrong lessons from Iraq—or in overlearning the lessons of caution. Some claim the American project in Iraq was doomed from the beginning, because Iraqis and Arabs more broadly are culturally incapable of sustaining democracy. That is a familiar historical charge, made in other periods, against Catholics in Southern Europe, Hindus and Muslims in India, Eastern Orthodox in Eastern Europe, and Confucian cultures across Asia. All of these groups experienced difficult days in their democratic transitions—moments when the skeptics seemed to be vindicated. Did Indian democracy look to be successful when more than a million people died by violence during the partition process in the later 1940s? But in all of these cases, betting against the advance of democracy was a poor wager.
It may be possible that the Arab world is the great exception to this trend of history; but if so, Iraq does not prove it. Americans who first entered Iraq did not report an inevitable sectarian conflict. To the contrary, the Shia were remarkably patient during the first two years after the liberation. Iraqis of every background, including most Sunnis, were pleased that Saddam was gone and were generally inclined to withhold judgment about the occupation. There was little resentment at the size of the occupation force, and great hope that the arrival of the Americans would improve the lives of the Iraqi people. Nor were the successive elections an illusion. They were real achievements. Iraqis voted under considerable threat, in percentages greater than do Western democracies—advances that should not be forgotten or denigrated.
Given these events, an imperious contempt for the Shia—a belief that barbarians will always be barbarians—is neither fair nor helpful. Iraqi patience and goodwill were not lacking; rather, they were squandered when the Coalition failed to provide security and basic services. Sectarian conflict was not preordained—it intensified when many of the Shia lost confidence in the ability of the Coalition and Iraqi army to defend them and turned for protection and revenge to militias and death squads. Iraq does not demonstrate that democracy is impossible in the Arab world; it demonstrates that founding a new democracy is difficult in a nation overrun by militias and insurgents.
This is not to say that support for democracy in the Arab world always requires immediate elections. Such elections in Saudi Arabia, for example, would likely result in a government more oppressive and dangerous than the current one. But in Iraq there was no alternative to elections. After the invasion and liberation—undertaken, it bears repeating, primarily for reasons of national security—the president was not about to install a potential Shia dictator in place of the old Sunni dictator. That kind of cynical power game would likely have facilitated a massive Shia retribution and perhaps even genocide against the Sunnis. Democracy is necessary in Iraq precisely because it is the only political system that eventually can tame sectarian tensions, giving the Shia majority the influence it deserves, while guaranteeing the rights and representation of the Sunni minority.
But democracy in Iraq certainly has enemies—jihadists, Baathist holdouts, and religious militias—who happen to be some of the worst criminals on the global stage. We have been led by history to a simple choice: do we stand with the flawed democrats of Iraq, or abandon them to overthrow and death? Some foreign-policy realists argue that such considerations of honor mean little in international affairs. But this national commitment is more than a matter of chivalry. If America abandons Muslim leaders and soldiers who are risking their lives to fight Islamic radicalism and terror—in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere—the War on Terror cannot be won.
Another false lesson is found in the assertion that the Iraq War has actually been creating the terrorist threat we seek to fight—stirring up a hornet's nest of understandable grievances in the Arab world. In fact, radical Islamist networks have never lacked for historical provocations. When Osama bin Laden proclaimed his 1998 fatwa justifying the murder of Americans, he used the excuse of President Clinton's sanctions and air strikes against Iraq—what he called a policy of "continuing aggression against the Iraqi people." He talked of the "devastation" caused by "horrible massacres" of the 1991 Gulf War. All this took place before the invasion of Iraq was even contemplated—and it was enough to result in the murder of nearly three thousand Americans on 9/11. Islamic radicals will seize on any excuse in their campaign of recruitment and incitement. If it were not Iraq, it would be the latest "crime" of Israel, or the situation in East Timor, or cartoons in a Dutch newspaper, or statements by the pope. The well of outrage is bottomless. The list of demands—from the overthrow of moderate Arab governments to the reconquest of Spain—is endless.
America is not responsible for the existence of Islamist ideology. Yet the shifting prospect of American success or failure in the Iraq War does have an effect on the recruitment of radicals. All "pan movements"—political ideologies that claim historical inevitability—expand or contract based on morale. Bin Laden talks of how the Arab world is attracted to the "strong horse"—the victor, the evident winner—and there is truth in that claim. In an ideological struggle, perception matters greatly, and outcomes matter most. Israel's perceived defeat in Lebanon in 1982 helped produce a generation of terrorists, convinced that armed struggle could humble their enemy. If America were really to retreat in humiliation from Iraq, Islamist radicals would trumpet their victory from North Africa to the islands of the Philippines … increase their recruitment of the angry and misguided … and expand the size and boldness of their attacks.
Perhaps the most dangerous and self-destructive lesson that might be drawn from Iraq is a hyper-caution indistinguishable from paralysis. In a backlash to the Iraq War, some Democrats seem to argue that any future American action or intervention will require both certainty as to the validity of our intelligence and international unanimity. The evidence on weapons of mass destruction must always be conclusive, or else it must always be mocked and dismissed. The United Nations must always grant its blessing and legitimacy. Were America to accept these ground rules, we would become a spectator in world events. The demand for intelligence certainty would allow flickering threats to become raging fires before any action were taken to extinguish them. The demand for international unanimity would make interventions to prevent genocide or ethnic cleansing nearly impossible. America acted in the former Yugoslavia under President Clinton without U.N. support, and may need to do the same in other places in the future. At some point, caution becomes demoralization, and humility becomes humiliation …