What Two Lost Wars Taught Us

Amid the highly political debate over Iran’s nuclear program—which Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addressed during his visit to Israel over the weekend—it’s important to recall the recent history of two bloody, costly wars we just fought and, let’s face it, lost.

Iraq recently had its biggest outbreak of terrorist violence in months. Afghanistan is struggling with assassinations, terrorist attacks and corruption on a monumental scale. And the US had to apologize to the Pakistani government for killing two dozen Pakistani troops in a November border clash because we needed to restore vital supply lines from Pakistan to NATO troops in Afghanistan.

What a mess! After a decade of wars that officially cost $1.3 trillion (but may have actually cost more than $3 trillion), 6,400 dead, more than 48,000 wounded, and who knows how many broken souls and psyches, what do we really have to show for it?

Yes, Saddam Hussein is gone and Al Qaeda has been routed from Afghanistan, but our goals in both countries were far grander—and we have fallen far short of achieving them.

That’s why the comments of the outgoing US ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, to The New York Times this weekend are particularly important. Crocker also served as ambassador to Iraq, and his outspoken views on both countries have ruffled a lot of feathers.

Ambassador Ryan Crocker in Herat, Afghanistan in 2011. Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/U.S. Embassy Kabul Afghanistan/S.K. Vemmer/Department of State.

This diplomat, who has retired after serving nearly four decades in the State Department, has drawn some critical lessons from those two bitter wars, as the Times reported:

  • Remember the law of unintended consequences.
  • Recognize the limits of the United States’ actual capabilities.
  • Understand that getting out of a conflict once you are in can often be dangerous and as destructive for the country as the original conflict.

He went on to tell The Times:

You better do some cold calculating, you know, about how do you really think you are going to influence things for the better…We’re a superpower, we don’t fight on our territory, but that means you are in somebody else’s stadium, playing by somebody else’s ground rules, and you have to understand the environment, the history, the politics of the country you wish to intervene in.

How many policy makers have actually done that? Hardly any. And yet Romney’s neoconservative advisors are pushing the envelope on Iran, making noises that sound awfully like what the same people said before our catastrophic invasion of Iraq. Some of this is pure politics, but unfortunately the neocons have never admitted they were wrong about Iraq nor have they shown they learned the lessons of that reckless foray into adventurism.

According to some polls, most Americans support the use of force, if necessary, to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. But that would have major  ripple effects well beyond the Persian Gulf.

That’s why diplomacy and sanctions must be given enough time until it’s clear they aren’t working. Military action should always be the last resort, but in Iraq it was the first resort—and that’s a big reason why it turned out so badly. Something like that must never happen again, which is why the people who got us into that fiasco must admit their mistakes and show they’ve absorbed what Ambassador Crocker learned the hard way.

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7 Responses to What Two Lost Wars Taught Us

  1. Jim Thomas August 1, 2012 at 1:54 am #

    Right on. The people who got us into Iraq and also were involved in us staying far too long in Afghanistan have never really owned up to what a disaster both moves were for our country. Future military interventions must be guided by the cost of lives and money as well as how much we can really accomplish.

  2. Bob August 6, 2012 at 11:43 am #

    The long-term cost just for closed head injuries & combat trauma will add billions to the burden of the VA in treatment costs.

    • HowardRGold August 6, 2012 at 12:26 pm #

      Good point, Bob, and I think that\’s included in some of the higher estimates of the costs, like Joseph Stiglitz\’s $3 trillion. Thanks for your comment, HG

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