The big reveal in former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s new memoir—controversial a week before publication—is that President Obama had doubts about the strategy he was pursuing in Afghanistan and the people who were executing that strategy.  “As I sat [in a March, 2011 White House meeting on the war],” Gates writes, “I thought, the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his.  For him, it’s all about getting out.”

Good for Obama.  John F. Kennedy had doubts about the Bay of Pigs invasion and went ahead with it anyway.   Lyndon Johnson had doubts about Vietnam, and not only stayed in but escalated the war.  Obama had doubts about Afghanistan—and moved toward getting us out.

Some commentators suggest that it is unseemly for Gates to publish while the president he served is still in office.

In fact, it couldn’t come at a better time.  Gates’ recollection of how our expeditions into Iraq and Afghanistan turned out couldn’t come at a better time than when the civil war in Syria is spurring calls for Obama to do something—just what he should do is seldom specified, but something—to bring peace and democracy to yet another Middle East country.

We threw everything we had at Iraq: shock and awe, boots on the ground, long term occupation—a much greater commitment than anything being urged on Obama in Syria.

The prospects seemed promising.  Iraq had an educated middle class.  Its oil made it economically self-sustaining. If Saddam Hussein and his army could be gotten out of the way, the field would be open for the creation of a civil society. Under our tutelage, Sunni, Shia and Kurds could learn to live together in peace.  We wouldn’t be there long.  Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was so confident that everything would quickly fall into place that he made no plans for a prolonged occupation.

He was wrong.  Colin Powell was right—we broke Iraq and we owned its consequences: Eight years of war and occupation.  Over $2 trillion spent—about thirty times the original estimate of $50-60 billion—1.5 million troops deployed, 4,500 killed, 32,000 injured, some grievously, many permanently.  And that’s just Americans.

Today Iraq is free of Saddam—an unalloyed good.  There have been three rounds of elections—three more than were held in the 80-plus years since the British carved Iraq out of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

And after all that, after the favorable auguries, the heavy investment, the ouster of Saddam, cities with once familiar names, like Fallujah and Ramadi, are back in the headlines under siege—this time by Al Qaeda, which wasn’t even a factor before the US intervention. Iraq is reported to be on the brink of civil war.

With the lessons learned in Iraq—which we fought with the lessons learned in Vietnam—we’ve been in Afghanistan even longer.  We’ve sent over 1 million troops, spent over $640 billion, absorbed more than 2,000 deaths and almost 18,000 injured.  And from the alarm that greeted President Obama’s threat to withdraw completely if Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai didn’t agree to terms by the end of 2013, nobody on either side is confident that, without a strong US presence, Afghanistan can resist becoming a haven for terrorists—the whole reason for our going in and staying–or even cohere as a government.

Iraq and Afghanistan are better and freer than they were before we intervened—for now, at least.  But we’ve learned that our military might, our economic investment, our nation-building know-how, and our readiness to sacrifice the lives and health of our armed forces are not sufficient to turn Iraq into a democracy or Afghanistan into a nation.

And we should have learned that while we should do what we can to be helpful to the constructive—or at least the less-destructive—forces in Syria, and while we should do what we can to succor the victims of the civil war, we must be very modest about the ability of any intervention to change reality.


  1. Jay
    January 15th, 2014 | 7:25 pm

    It keeps playing in my head. “Against my better judgement, I …….”.

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