Five Years in Iraq: Political Leadership and Lessons Learned
The Glass is Half-Empty?
The fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq was marked this week in both the American and the German press for the most part in equally somber tones. Despite the speech by President Bush at the Pentagon, in which he proclaimed the war as a noble cause, the record since March of 2003 offers evidence of both failures and successes, some incremental, others dramatic. The thousands of lives lost and injured since the days of 'shock and awe,' the millions of Iraqis displaced as refugees within and outside of their country, the stain of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo on America's reputation around the world, and the poisonous plants of insurgency's sadistic violence growing throughout the region have all been cause to be either disappointed or angry with the White House. It does not help when the administration is unwilling to admit in public anything other than "mistakes were made," the Iraqi government is still unable to govern, and an array of regional actors seeking to exploit instability for their own gain. The glass seems less than half-full.
Yet in these five years, the efforts made on the ground in Iraq by many brave citizens, diplomats and soldiers, non-governmental organizations and international agencies to help secure a modicum of progress under such circumstances tell stories which can inspire. That everyday battle for survival, despite widespread incompetence and corruption, demonstrates resilience and hope over the experience of the last five years.
What are the Lessons to be Learned?
The effort to extract lessons from these tumultuous years in Iraq has been at the center of the American debate in the run-up to the November presidential election. How long and in what way the U.S. will remain engaged in Iraq is debated but the reality is: the engagement will be sustained well beyond the next president's term, if not the hundred years John McCain suggested.
The lessons include an increasing emphasis on engaging the larger number of players in the region, including Iran and Syria. They also include forging cooperative policies with a wide range of the countries who see that they have a stake in the short- and long-term stability of Iraq and its neighborhood.
The questions about lessons learned for countries that, like Germany, decided not to engage in the war itself, are also of central importance. Of course, the assumption would be that the war confirmed for many Germans that the decision not to participate in that war was indeed the right one, given the record since then. An attitude of "we told you this would turn out badly" is widespread. Indeed, the emphasis on "soft power" in dealing with such conflicts would seem to be confirmed in the minds of many who not only see Iraq as demonstrating the hazards of war but also see the same picture in Afghanistan. But a we-told-you-so attitude does not help us tackle the complex nature of threats in the twenty-first century. The best solutions can only lie in a complimentary approach of military, diplomatic, and civilian tools.
Hard Power vs. Soft Power
While the American debate would seem to be moving in the direction of reconnecting the importance of both hard and soft power in dealing with the twenty-first century's challenges, the German debate, for example over Afghanistan, circles around the principle of the use of force, with many believing that it is in most cases counterproductive. The equation between securing the country by battling the Taliban and rebuilding the country with aid and reconstruction efforts appears to most Germans as yielding a zero-sum result as far as Germany is concerned. Some conflate the war in Iraq with the war in Afghanistan, drawing the conclusion that the former was a mistake and therefore the latter is equally unproductive. Others argue that the German engagement in the northern section of Afghanistan is evidence that a peaceful approach is more effective than bombing campaigns in the south.
There are several things at stake amidst these debates. One is the understanding of what collective defense means today. The foundation of NATO was a combination of collective defense and a commitment to solidarity in the framework of the Cold War. The threats of intercontinental missiles and thousands of tanks were positioned against each other for almost five decades. That framework has been replaced by a different set of threats, be it energy security, terrorism, or failed/failing states. The responses to these challenges are made up not only by military hardware but a wide range of political, economic and development tools. But in order to achieve more synergy among these efforts, those wishing to maintain that collective defense commitment have to agree on how to use all the tools necessary.
The Status of the German Debate
The German debate is currently influenced by a failure on the part of the political leadership to provide a convincing case to Germans not only why Germany is engaged in Afghanistan but also by a failure to explain what is being done on the ground. Despite the fact that Germany represents the third-largest contingent of troops, is actually providing so-called quick response forces to engage in battle when needed, and supplying surveillance planes, among other things. There is reluctance among the parliamentarians and government officials to talk about this openly and candidly. The result is that the public at large fails to see what the stake for Germany is in this conflict in terms of its own national interests.
If one tries to make the argument that solidarity within the alliance dictates German engagement in all areas of this conflict, there might even be a response which puts in question whether NATO is still relevant in the new era of threats and challenges in the twenty-first century. But with a European defense capability still very much limited in terms of resources and decision-making, what options are available when it comes to dealing with the use of force by those who seek to destabilize and destroy areas of the world which are of direct and strategic importance? The experiences of the last five years certainly offer evidence to Americans that the notion of being a superpower has its limits and also that multiple partners and allies are not only needed, but they are vital to achieving sustainable success.
The Role of Collective Security
There is going to be another test for those seeking a consensus on collective security if the situation in the Balkans begins to flare up again as it did a decade ago. In the face of genocide, Germany and the U.S. jointly used force to stop it, without a UN mandate. Will there be a readiness to do that again if Serbs and Kosovars repeat the mistakes of the past? The United States will be reluctant to reengage in an area of Europe where the Europeans themselves will need to secure peace and reconstruction in their own backyard.
The lessons learned from Iraq are of central importance to the U.S., given the enormous amount of blood and treasure which has been spent on it. Yet it is not a choice of simply packing up and heading home, closing the doors to the world. The challenge of Iraq is representative of the twenty-first century's shift in power and threats, and that will require a continuing response from the U.S., hopefully more strategically thought out than these last five years have demonstrated.
For Germany now, which has experienced losses in Afghanistan, most of the population is inclined to pack up and head home. The issues of threats and responses are discussed as if there was an option somehow not to be confronted by them. In such a paradigm, policy gets replaced by philosophy.
In formulating a sense of collective defense and burden-sharing, it is more important that an alliance be clear about the questions they need to address, even if the answers resulting come up differently. It is the definition of the problem which forms the basis for a consensus and the basis on which we then argue about what to do about it. We need to find a common definition on the security environment we are in and the role we want NATO to play in it.
These questions will come up at the NATO summit in Bucharest next month and there needs to be an open discussion on the issues as well as on what is at stake for the Euro-Atlantic community if we do not solve them effectively. Afghanistan plays a central role in this debate and there is a broad perception that allied solidarity is breaking down at the Hindukush. Germany is one of the countries that will be asked to step up to the plate and do more on the military side of the mission. This seems to be less of a question of military capability but more of political will. It is clear that there cannot be two missions, but only one joint NATO strategy. The Secretary General of NATO, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer made it very clear in Washington last month when he said that it is a delusion that there is such thing as a choice between combat and development work.
The challenge for German-American relations, especially under new leadership in Washington next year, will be to forge a consensus and agree on a complimentary strategy when it comes to tackling security challenges. It will not be easy unless the lessons of the past five years are learned on both sides of the Atlantic.
This essay appeared in the March 21, 2008, AICGS Advisor.