The Lessons of Iraq for America’s Future Enemies
One of the critical arguments that defenders of a continuing American involvement in Iraq make is that the American termination of its presence there will be precedent-setting for the future. Unless the United States “prevails” in Iraq (or some similar descriptor like “wins,” or “stays the course”), it is argued, America’s future opponents will be emboldened to confront the United States or will be discouraged, depending on the degree of rigor and determination the United States displays. If America prevails, our future opponents will be chastened and hopefully deterred. If, on the other hand, the United States is not steadfast, this will display a weakness that others may seek to exploit in the future.
Leave aside the question of what exactly it means for the United States to prevail (the logic of the war discussed in a previous entry). The lessons America’s future opponents will learn about taking on the United States will only marginally be influenced by what the United States does in the future in Iraq. The United States has, from their viewpoint, already amply demonstrated its penchant for quixotic hoodlumism by staying in Iraq this long. Staying longer may indicate the extent of American self-delusion, but not whether to take on the Americans or not. The only question that continuing American presence may answer is how long one has to continue an anti-American crusade before the Americans leave. If one operates on the assumption that even the possibility of something resembling the achievement of the political objectives for which the United States started the war goes well beyond American patience, the question of the lesson of Iraq for future American opponents has already been answered.
This question is addressed in Chapter 6 of What After Iraq? It is amplified here. Look at the prospect of having to face American military power from the vantage point of a potential Third World opponent. Iraq demonstrates several things to you. First, it demonstrates the futility of confronting the Americans frontally in symmetrical warfare. You probably already knew this and may not even have the kind of army that could attempt the contest, but the ease of conquest demonstrates that if the Americans decide to invade and conquer you, there is not much you can do about it.
Being conquered and being subdued, however, are not quite the same things. Another lesson you may learn from Iraq is that the U.S. armed forces are very good at conquering places, but they are too small and doctrinally ill-equipped to hold them: the Americans are not as good at occupations as they are at conquests. Iraq clearly demonstrates that a reasonably well organized asymmetrical resistance (or several of them, in the Iraqi case) may have two exploitable effects. First, it will force the Americans to stay longer than they want. America’s armed forces are built for short, decisive actions (a partial legacy of the Rumsfeld regime), not long slogs. Long involvements reveal their major weakness, which is a shortage of manpower that it cannot readily augment. Second, the Iraqis have demonstrated that a patient, persistent, low-key insurgency can tie down the bulk of American forces for a long time, leaving the United States strategically very constrained should other negative events affect American interests while those forces are tied down (the subject of the next entry). The Iraqis have exposed that the United States can be, if not defeated, at least stalemated. That is no meager accomplishment for a country with less than 10 percent of the population of the United States. Will the United States want to risk a similar embarrassment in the future?
There is not a great deal the United States can do in Iraq to change these dynamics and lessons for others. The bottom line of the lessons is that any future U.S. opponents would do very well to study in detail and replicate where possible what the Iraqi resistance has done to the Americans. Staying in Iraq longer will not change the lessons others will learn; if anything, they will reinforce them. The only way the United States could possibly reverse those perceptions would be to put a much larger force into Iraq that might be able to blanket the country and crush all resistance by strangling the countryside. Doing so, of course, would require a much larger force than the United States has and could recruit for the task. In fact, the mere suggestion of such a possibility would unleash a political firestorm that would reinforce the perceptions of future foes. The Iraqis know that, and so do future opponents. For the United States to alter these lessons, it must go back to the drawing board and see if it can devise a truly effective counter-insurgency strategy that Iraq clearly demonstrates to friend and especially foe it does not currently possess. If it does not, Iraq will not be the last Iraq.