Liberty Expose: The Most Important Lesson From Iraq
15 years ago this month, the United States invaded Iraq. Since then, the Iraq War has become one of the defining political questions of our time. It was a war that was won after years of fighting and bloodshed, only to be lost by lawmakers more interested in political expediency than in strategy. Tragedy followed, and the democracy that the United States spent blood and treasure to create was divided and thrown back into chaos by terrorist groups and proxy forces willing to capitalize on the American withdrawal. There are many lessons the Iraq War can teach, but perhaps the most important one – the lesson that Americans routinely refuse to learn - is how to secure the victory.
This is not so much a lesson unique to the Iraq War as it is a reminder of a routine American mistake. It would seem that many American policymakers, or rather those who vote for them, have no conception of what a power vacuum is. There is a trend in American history of not finishing the job when it comes to fighting asymmetric wars. Take the civil war for example.
After the Union destroyed the Confederacy in 1865, the US army began the process of reconstruction – with one of the duties including suppressing any would-be attempts to resurrect the Confederacy, or at least discourage Confederate partisans.
Many ex-Confederates donned hoods under the banner of a new organization – the Ku Klux Klan – in order to terrorize emancipated slaves. Many of the rights that the hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers died to grant to former slaves were being rolled-back by Southern governments and white supremacist terrorists like the Klan.
The US army was brought in to put down the Klan and secure the rights granted to the freed slaves - for which the American government was successful, if not temporarily. In a brief period of time, the Klan was no longer a threat and the rights guaranteed under the constitution to all Americans saw a degree of compliance. That all changed when the army left. With the withdrawal of forces,Jim Crow laws were introduced, subsequently rolling back the liberty that was earned at such a horrific price.
The Vietnam War provides another example. The war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq parallel each other in similarities. Both wars were initially fought over premises that proved to either be untrue, at least to the extent as believed. For Vietnam, it was believed that if the Southeast Asian nation fell to communism, neighboring countries would fall with it. This was called the Domino Theory, and it would only be partially true. After Vietnam fell, Laos and Cambodia would fall to the Red Menace as well. But that would be it, at least for Asia. The communist nations of Southeast Asia would be more interested in fighting each other than spreading Marxism.
In Iraq, amongst other reasons including the blatant violations of international law and committing genocide, the primary justification for invading Iraq centered on the fear of the Saddam regime having weapons of mass destruction. When the weapons sought after were not discovered, the secondary Wilsonian justification of bringing democracy to an oppressed people was produced. Either or, both causes of the Vietnam and Iraq wars were noble. The South Vietnamese government was by no means without flaws, but their rivals to the North were attempting to force the most brutal ideology in history upon them – and America was willing to prevent it.
And in Iraq, Saddam Hussein was a genocidal tyrant who had no remorse in gassing his own people. He deserved to have the throne taken from him. Both of the wars were also strategic quagmires. Neither conflict was expected to be as brutal as it ended up being – a cost burdened by the bravery of those fighting on the ground.
What both wars also have in common is that they were initially successful after the strategic failures. The United Sates annihilated the communist armies fighting in Vietnam and took the life out of terrorist forces in Iraq.
All of this would be sacrificed when political leaders lost the gains that thousands of Americans died achieving. In Vietnam, Washington political partisanship and maneuvering would isolate South Vietnam. The U.S. pulled out of Vietnam as a formal fighting force in 1973 under Nixon’s “peace with honor” campaign. Two years later, communist forces would capture the South Vietnamese capital city of Saigon, and force thousands into reeducation camps.
Decades later in Iraq, politics motivated the premature withdrawal of troops from the Middle Eastern nation in 2011. The Iraqi government proved unable and unwilling to capitalize on the victory and instead focused on tribalism. The result was the rise of ISIS, and the forcing of Iraq back into another war that continues to this day. In the process, cities that Americans suffered immensely to liberate such as Ramadi and Fallujah were retaken by insurgents.
With such a history of losing the gains that tens of thousands of Americans have died to achieve, voters and policymakers should now know better when it comes to fighting in asymmetric conflicts. The likelihood of the U.S. fighting another Iraq or Vietnam is high. With the benefits of being the sole superpower comes the burden of maintaining that status. When America does enter another conflict, voters and policymakers should know that patience is the endgame. The path towards victory is paved by years of nation-building and anti-insurgency. Expecting a quick victory will only result in another foreign policy disaster. Let’s see if we learn from history.