Published March 13, 2010
That sound you hear is of Conventional Wisdom cracking on the Iraq war.
A few weeks ago Vice President Biden stated that Iraq “could be one of the great achievements of this administration.” (That's right; one of the greatest achievements of the Obama administration.) Then last week came the much-commented upon Newsweek cover story, which declared that “something that looks mighty like democracy is emerging in Iraq. And while it may not be a beacon of inspiration to the region, it most certainly is a watershed event that could come to represent a whole new era in the history of the massively undemocratic Middle East.” And then, earlier this week, Tom Friedman of the New York Times weighed in, saying “Former President George W. Bush's gut instinct that this region craved and needed democracy was always right.”
That Iraq has seen a dramatic turnaround in its fortunes since 2006 is indisputable. A nation that was broken and sliding toward civil war is on the mend and in the process of creating a representative government in the heart of the Middle East (General David Petraeus refers to it as “Iraqracy.”)
Whether it lasts is impossible to know; it will be up to the Iraqis themselves to take this opportunity to make something durable out of what has been accomplished so far. Forming a new government in the aftermath of the recent elections will take time, and it's sure to be fractious. The impending drawdown of troops (from roughly 100,000 to 50,000 by the end of August) may put additional stresses on Iraq's transfer of power.
Nevertheless, perhaps we can agree that whatever mistakes were made in the early execution of the war — and they were considerable and costly — the United States was not “imposing” democracy on the people of Iraq. We might be able to agree, too, that the new counterinsurgency strategy announced by President Bush in January 2007 — a strategy that was fiercely opposed by Messrs. Biden and Obama, by virtually the entire Democratic Party, the political class, and almost all of the foreign policy establishment — was a wise and politically courageous decision. That doesn't necessarily mean the war itself was worth the cost. Where Iraq finally ends up will determine that matter. But it's clear, I think, that the commonly held view that Iraq was “probably the biggest foreign policy mistake in American history” (Joe Klein) was wrong and foolish. The former American ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, put it as well as anyone has: “In the end, how we leave and what we leave behind will be more important than how we came.”
One thing that has gotten almost no attention, though, is how much the military has changed, and in some respects been transformed, in part because of the Iraq war. The Vietnam war badly damaged the morale and the public's faith in the military as an institution. Out of the crucible of the Iraq war, however, the military has made some extraordinary progress, learning some things and building on others.
The military has learned war-fighting tactics and strategies that we're effectively applying in Afghanistan (with the full awareness that the countries and the nature of the conflicts are different in important respects). Our commanders have jettisoned an approach that wasn't working (using a “light footprint” approach in the midst of industrial-strength insurgencies) and replaced it with a much more effective one (a traditional counterinsurgency strategy that relies in part on winning over the population.)
Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have accelerated the advent and development of a host of technological and conceptual advances — Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) with full-motion video and armaments; breakthroughs in every discipline of intelligence (including imagery, signals, human, and measurement); intelligence fusion; advanced command, control, communications, and computer systems; wheeled armored vehicles; precision munitions for virtually all large caliber weapons; and battlefield medicine advances, to name just a few.
We now have, by far, the most experienced military in the world and in our history. (All our recent long wars have been fought by draftees who, in Vietnam and Korea, did their tours and left; World War II was, for the most part, a year-long endeavor for the average GI, though clearly some entered combat in 1942-43 and served longer.) Never before have we had commissioned and non-commissioned officers with this depth of experience. We also recognize the need for what the military call “pentathlete leaders,” meaning leaders who can just about do it all — not just major combat operations but also stability and support, or “nation-building” — operations. Our military overall is much better trained, educated, and equipped for “full-spectrum operations,” not just for the high-end operations.
None of this has happened by accident. People like General Petraeus and others took a difficult war — one that imposed great burdens on our fighting men and women and their families — and not only turned the war around, but in the process they began to reform the doctrine and attitudes of mind of the military itself.
We live in an age in which trust in our public (and many of our private) institutions is at low ebb. This is something that is harmful and corrosive to our nation. The military is one of the few institutions whose reputation has actually improved. In the midst of two difficult wars, including one that was edging toward defeat, it undertook the task of self-examination and thoroughgoing reform. This ranks as among the most impressive, if overlooked, achievements in our time. It is a tribute to the intelligence, skill, and imagination of a remarkable generation, one that did not grow weary in doing good.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.