Very soon a new industry called "The Lessons of Iraq" will be born, even as the search for the end-game continues against the back-drop of the theme "who lost Iraq." Partisan strategists will be allocating blame while more thoughtful citizens will try to draw lessons for future generations.
Some lessons are apparent. Do not manufacture justification for invasions. Plan for all eventualities, including the most unpleasant. Do not pay exiles to tell you what you want to hear. Deal honestly with Congress and the American people. Be candid about possible costs in lives and money. And an endless list of common sense, and Constitutional, dos and don'ts.
The second kind of lessons are less obvious and have to do with the new realities of the 21st century:
First, treat jihadist terrorism more like organized crime than traditional warfare. By declaring "war on terrorism" we made the fatal mistake that it could be crushed using conventional warfare and massed armies. We clearly had the legal and moral right to overturn the Taliban government in Afghanistan that harbored al Qaeda as it planned and carried out the 9.11 attacks. Even so, the democratization of an ancient tribal society is proving hugely more difficult than driving the Taliban out of Kabul. Indeed, it seems set on returning.
Instead, we should create NATO II, an organization combining the intelligence services, law enforcement agencies, and special forces of Western democracies to coordinate the crushing of jihadist cells.
Second, liberate the U.S. from dependence on Persian Gulf oil. We can then sharply reduce the U.S. military presence in the region and remove the single most important incentive for jihadism. A consortium of oil consuming nations can agree with regional oil producers to protect the continued flow of oil to world markets. The U.S. should not be the default guarantor of oil supplies. We would also help rid ourselves of the hypocrisy of "bringing democracy to the Middle East" even as we support Saudi Arabia and other oligarchies, and we would be at greater liberty to support genuine democratic voices in the region.
Third, restore principle to American foreign policy. Neoconservatives who dominate the Bush administration have used the Wilsonian rhetoric of "democratic idealism" even as they pursue the most cynical and dishonest policies. These policies, including covert support for highly undemocratic regimes and factions, repression of dissent, and cynical manipulation of local politics, are hidden from the American people but are well known to the people of the countries where we carry them out. We must regain our moral authority in the world by living up to our own high ideals and Constitutional principles.
Fourth, engage the nations of the world in achieving security for the global commons. Security in the 21st century now means much more than it did in the Cold War 20th century. It includes security and openness of markets, security of the environment and reversal of global warming, security of energy supplies, security of livelihood, and the security of healthy communities. The U.S. is expected to understand the new century and lead the world in replacing narrow notions of national security with the much greater appreciation for the security of the global commons.
Too little sober thought was given to the real lessons of Vietnam. Instead, three decades of recriminations prevented serious reflection and mature judgment. Liberal forces were seen by too many Americans as unconcerned for our security and suffered political defeat as a result. Those same forces should now take the lead in framing the debate about the true lessons of Iraq and the creation of a new definition of America's role in the world of the 21st century.