Reflections on John Nagl’s Lessons from Iraq

Read John Nagl’s op-ed in today’s New York Times. He highlights three nuggets worth extracting from America’s otherwise painful Iraq experience. John is as usual an insightful, experienced voice of military theory and practice. He overlooks, however, a critical dimension in each of the three “lessons” he unfurls.

John’s first lesson was for the American politicians who pushed us into a war that we did not need to fight, for reasons that proved false. But there was in fact a broader cause for which to intervene militarily in Iraq by 2003. The US government and the international community recognized they had no other tools left to force Saddam’s compliance with multiple and repeated UN Security Council resolutions imposed since 1990. Saddam’s regime unquestionably had had programs of weapons of mass destruction: nuclear, chemical, and biological, and the long-range missiles needed to deploy them. For a dozen years he denied, deceived, and then, when forced to admit their existence, ultimately just refused to account for the alleged prior destruction of physical evidence. That is what inspections were about – to force accountability and compliance. That is what he continuously toyed with the UN over, including even his staunchest supporters. There was never a full accounting for these weapon systems, except the nuclear program, including the whereabouts of missiles and significant amounts of chemical and biological precursors.

The United States rightly took the lead to forge a consensus for military intervention when the UN Security Council was blocked from doing so, principally by Russian and French veto threats. And make no mistake, the international community was also fed-up with Saddam’s flouting international will with impunity. Many were prepared to accept the inevitability of the use of force.  In the fall of 2002 the international community was offering tangible support for military intervention. That includes post-conflict international humanitarian, civil-military, and stabilization operations that would have given the Iraqis the chance to rebuild their nation. The United States squandered that opportunity in late 2002-early 2003 by choosing to become the lead vigilante in a self-organized posse. Others be damned.

The lesson for US politicians therefore is: how does the international community compel compliance on issues that it considers a grave threat? The answer is establishing international consensus on strategies, sticking with it, and building upon it. Take Iran. We applied lessons learned from the ineffective Iraqi sanctions regime to set up a much more stringent, consensus-based, Iranian sanctions regime. The Iranians are looking to negotiate a way out of it, even though there is no international consensus yet for military intervention. Consensus was the key to success in Libya, and is the challenge in Syria. The US eschews military intervention. John Nagl rightly points out that perhaps the United States no longer insists on American boots on the ground to achieve our common strategic interests. Nevertheless, a successful policy toward Syria will require a unified international coalition dedicated to the right outcome. The US can certainly help lead that consensus.

The second lesson was for a US military unprepared for 21st century warfare. Here Nagl draws from his revelatory book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, on the importance of militaries becoming learning institutions. But there is more to the counterinsurgency lesson than just for the military. Contemporary asymmetric threats and COIN strategies require strong, effective, and skilled civilian agencies of government. Military operations prepare for and complement civilian tasks. In fact appropriately resourced diplomacy and development can actually prevent or mitigate instability that too often leads willy-nilly to military intervention. The military should not be expected to do everything in counterinsurgency.

The final lesson was for the American people who have trusted the experiment of an all-volunteer military. It has performed “with enormous distinction” in John’s words, and correctly so. His point is that “the nation owes…a depth of gratitude it can never fully repay.” This is the unquestionable call for continued support to veterans and their families. Absolutely.

The bigger lesson from Iraq, however, is whether our volunteer military and Pentagon civilian corps should be sized differently. The US military leadership understandably resists returning to the draft; it wants a professional, effective fighting force for the nation’s wars. But perhaps we need the draft only when the US government chooses to engage in wars, like Iraq, that require large scale forces. We might not ever want to go down this road again; having more of the American public with a stake in the decision might help us choose better. In either case, we should “right-size” our professional military and civilian defense force for 21st century warfare. Some of the savings could go into developing the other civilian agencies that support our national security and foreign policy – so we don’t have to fight so often. But the opposite is happening: we are broadening the capabilities of our military and civilian defense forces, and starving our diplomatic and development corps. The American people need to weigh in on that decision.

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