Iraq Lessons

Published November 30, 2006

National Review Online

I think Ralph Peters hits the nail on the head today.  According to Peters, we now have to choose between two missions in Iraq: a futile attempt to uphold a failed democracy, or a move to disarm the militias and restore security. Then of course there is the third option of exit, and a disastrous cascade of strategic setbacks in the war on terror. Democracy remains valid as a long-term goal. But rapid democratization through quick elections, in the absence of a monopoly of force held by the central power, has been shown not to work. (See “Democracy Illusions.”)Politically, we may need to pretend that Iraq’s democracy is still functioning. Today’s NR editorial on Iraq strikes the right note on all the military questions, then says what has to be said about Iraq’s government. But the fact that we’ve got to go after Sadr militarily reveals that democracy as we’ve conceived it up to now has been flawed. By failing to disarm independent militias prior to elections, we’ve allowed elected governments to be taken over by independent and undemocratic forces. This has also made it impossible to even begin the long-term process of cultural change that is the real key to successful democracy. Both Peters and NR’s editorial are saying “security first.” Democracy cannot be used, as we have tried to use it, as a tool to bring about the political bargains necessary to security. Democracy can only flourish in an atmosphere where security has already been assured.The underlying problem with this war is that, from the outset, it has been waged under severe domestic political constraints. From the start, the administration has made an assessment of how large a military the public would support, and how much time the public would allow us to build democracy and then get out of Iraq. We then shaped our military and “nation building” plans around those political constraints, crafting a “light footprint” military strategy linked to rapid elections and a quick handover of power. Unfortunately, the constraints of domestic American public opinion do not match up to what is actually needed to bring stability and democracy to a country like Iraq.

The one thing that might have saved the day (as NR’s editorial notes) would have been expanding our military right after 9/11, when the country would surely have gone along. This is much more than an historical point, and much more than a comment on our current dilemma in Iraq. Even if our Iraq problem were somehow miraculously solved, we would need a larger military. Even without the prospect of strikes against Iran, we would need a larger military. The possibility of collapsed governments in the nuclear states of North Korea and Pakistan, and the likelihood of major subversion of the weak Gulf states by Iran, mean that we simply must have a larger military.

The Iraq experience now leaves us with no excuse. We have been shown in no uncertain terms that our military is far too small to handle the demands of the war on terror. And again, this will hold true in the future, even if we leave Iraq. In fact, the disastrous cascade of strategic problems that would follow a rapid withdrawal from Iraq would likely strain our army far more than Iraq itself is doing now. Even a relatively successful exit from Iraq in a year or two would not solve the problem. Win or lose, Iraq war or no Iraq war, Iran strike or no Iran strike, we need more troops. There are simply too many huge security risks in today’s world to get by on a shrunken post-Cold War military.

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