With American voters having sent a clear message to our politicians that we want the war in Iraq to end, the sermons about what we've learned from this war are coming at a fast clip.
Everyone agrees that mistakes were made, and most of us agree what those blunders were. A colleague of mine last week ticked off a list of some of the mistakes. Bush and Rumsfeld not sending in enough troops or sufficient armaments to do the job. A tactical blunder for sure. Going to war on the false pretense that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. This was not only a mistake, but a huge national deception. Disbanding Hussein's army, which left only our soldiers and our handful of allies to control the bloody aftermath. The single biggest mistake, he said, was George Bush's lack of honesty about the huge sacrifice the war would entail - in money, lives and time.
But countries almost always go to war based on the best-case scenario. They're like the Confederate soldiers who rode off to battle, vowing to lick a few Yankees and be home in time for supper. We almost always underestimate the cost of war, and there's always some lessening of support once the body bags and price tags start piling up. But Americans remain oblivious to the overriding lesson of the war. When you interfere in the affairs of another country, not for the sake of its people, but to promote your own agenda and further your own ambitions, you set in motion events that will cause enormous suffering and that will reverberate for years to come.
Many people compare the Iraq War with the Vietnam War, another war we didn't realize we couldn't win until we were too mired down to easily get out. The ultimate lesson of Vietnam was not that we should have invested more resources to allow our troops to win the war, but that we should never have used the Vietnamese to wage our own war against communism, when what they really cared about was uniting their nation. Our myopia in that situation caused untold misery to the Vietnamese and the deaths of 58,000 Americans.
An earlier United States intervention - the CIA's maneuvering of the overthrow of Iran's popular prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh in the 1950s, and the propping up of the Shah, all to maintain a favorable business climate for foreign oil companies, ended with the Shah's overthrow, the taking of American hostages, and the rise of the radical Muslim clerics. Now the Bush administration is rattling sabers over what it claims are Iran's nuclear intentions. But whether this is true or a pretext to get a tighter grip on this region isn't clear.
Since the real reasons for invading Iraq were not to protect ourselves from an attack by Saddam Hussein or to free the Iraqis from a tyrant, but to revenge a plot against Bush's father, to tighten U.S. control of the Middle East, with its oil reserves and our ally Israel, it's no wonder that our troops weren't met with young maidens offering flowers or that this has degenerated into terrible factional warfare and strife. It's not just that Americans turned against the war when we realized we couldn't create a stable, democratic Iraq in a year or two. It's that this goal was never ours to create. Only the Iraqis could have done that.
The Republicans, and some Democrats, got us into Iraq, and it will now fall to a Democrat-dominated Congress to get us out. The challenge is how to do that in the quickest, most conscientious way, without leaving the Iraqis up a creek without a paddle.
But the lesson of this war is not just that the strategy was bad, the resources too few, or that presidents shouldn't lie to the people. The lesson is that this kind of interference, not for the Iraqis' sake, but for our own, is never successful. It creates a mess, like the one we're trying to get out of now.
Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.