Published March 19, 2013
The curse of presidents and generals is that they cannot outlive all the pundits and historians who will revisit their every decision.
As the world marks the 10th anniversary of the war in Iraq, essays assessing what happened in that conflict and the “lessons learned” abound. But the lessons drawn are likely to tell much more about how Americans feel about their place in the world today than what really happened a decade ago.
As a practicing historian, I know how historians practice. Rewriting history is our stock and trade.
There are only two reasons to restate the past. The first is the recovery of important new information. In 1974, for example, the U.S. and British governments acknowledged the Ultra secret: that for much of World War II, the allies had been able to read the top secret messages of both Germany and Japan. That revelation sent scholars back to rewrite, because new accounts were needed to interpret what the allies did based on what the allies really knew.
The second rationale for rethinking the record is to accommodate how those in the present think about the past. Every generation has its own questions. Those questions usually tell us more about us, however, than they do about the past. In the aftermath of Vietnam, for example, there was a wave of bitter revisionism that trashed America’s participation in every war. Even the World War II, the “good war,” came in for its share of bashing.
There are two different ways to rewrite history so that the past “fits” the present. Historians can either lump or split. Lumpers lump together all the evidence that fits their interpretation, often regardless of whether they are relevant or even true. The idea is to pack the evidence into and overwhelming tsunami of “proof.”
During Vietnam, for example, the Winter Soldier Investigation amassed a long list of “atrocities” performed by the U.S. military. The project fueled the debate over the war—though virtually none of the allegations were proven. In contrast, splitters split off specific incidents and make them a metaphor for the entire war—such as arguing that the massacre at Mai Lai is representative of how American soldiers acted in Vietnam.
As America rolls into the 10th anniversary of the outbreak of the Iraq War there is splitting and lumping a-plenty. Much of the debate has replayed the “no WMD in Iraq” argument. This is hardly the crucial turning point it is often made out to be. The record demonstrates that Saddam Hussein was a vicious dictator who violated—many times over—international peace accords.
Concurrently, he actively promoted a disinformation campaign to convince his neighbors that his regime had an active WMD program. In that deceit, Hussein was tragically successful. But neither of these considerations matters to historians interested in using the “no-WMD” card to discredit everything about the war.
Had WMD been found, and post-conflict Iraq broken out into a land of milk and honey, Americans would have just chalked up a “W” in the win column and moved on.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, America (and Iraq) endured a long, torturous period of occupation—and the blame game began.
Ten years on, we are not yet at the stage where lessons can be learned coolly and dispassionately. We remain mired in the blame phase—where everyone just draws the lessons they want so as to assign blame elsewhere.
The lesson the current administration wanted to learn was that Iraq was a disaster, a huge mistake. The way to avoid more Iraqs, then, is just to never make mistakes. So from President Obama’s first days in the White House, his answer for every foreign policy challenge has been to employ “smart” power.
Of course, no president is perfect. And President Obama has racked up a slew of foreign policy mistakes since taking office. His much vaunted Russian “reset” has failed.
The timetable-driven rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan has fostered instability rather than laid the groundwork for peace.
Doing Libya on the cheap created new opportunities for Al Qaeda and its affiliates and squandered the lives of Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Offering an open hand to Iran and North Korea has encouraged both countries to act more aggressively than ever. Rather than advance peace in the Middle East, the president is now heading for a tour of the region where his main goal is to keep things from deteriorating further.
But rather than admit that a “strategy” of being smarter than everyone else isn’t working, the president wants to pretend he has made no mistakes. Even the recent decision to reverse course on his missile defense cuts is portrayed as a prudent response—rather than an acknowledgment that he made a dangerously bad call four years ago when he cut U.S. defenses against the North Korean threat. Even with this reversal, the president’s initial misstep means Americans will wind up with less defense, at more cost, than if he had just followed through on his predecessor’s missile defense plan.
There are two competing narratives of the Iraq war—one that holds that now is the time for retrenchment and austerity. That remains the president’s view—that he can just substitute his brain power for military power.
The other, equally questionable idea is that America can make the world safer for Americans by going on the offensive everywhere—that we need to go “full Iraq” in every troublespot in the world, from Libya to Syria to Iran and beyond.
Both narratives constitute a caricature of sound strategy, reflecting little more than the human penchant to rewrite the past to reinforce our prejudice.
Today, America needs to approach the world with strength and focus. We need a strong national defense suitable to protect our global interests, but we need to be prudent and judicious in how we use our power.
History can’t give us all the answers on how to do that—especially if we read only the history we want. Take it from a historian.