Learning from Quagmire?

War and Peace

Lessons from Iraq: Avoiding the Next War by Miriam Pemberton and William Hartung, eds Paradigm, 2008


It is peculiar that a book on the lessons to be gleaned from our foreign policy misadventure in Iraq was published while the conflict still raged. Even now the fighting and dying continues, albeit on a lesser scale. The Iraq War is “the subject of volumes of instant history,” notes Arthur Schlesinger Jr1. What sets this book apart from contemporaneous Iraq War books, however, is its attempt not at commentary on the fiasco, but its intention to help avoid getting into this mess… again. More than an indictment of what went wrong, Lessons from Iraq is a how-to guide for post-George W. Bush American foreign policy. “This book is an effort to fix some points. Nail a few things down. Declare some policies and practices off-limits to U.S. policymakers,” Pemberton declares in her introduction.

War-making, however, is not one of the policies she wishes to declare “off-limits” to our policymakers, making her introductory remarks sit uncomfortably with those unsure of the 21st century role the American military should play—if any—in the international system. In fact, none of the accomplished contributors to this anthology dare make such a bold claim. “The idea of assembling lessons as tools for avoiding the next war is less of a stretch than it seems,” Pemberton writes. Sure, but avoiding war is the stretch we wish to see our policymakers and advisers make, is it not? Taken at face value, then, this anthology fails to live up to its subtitle of “avoiding the next war.” Instead, a more appropriate and less misleading moniker might read, Lessons from Iraq: Or, We will Go to War Again, but Next Time, Let’s Do It Right, and as a Last Resort. Mis-titled or not, Lessons has much to teach a country at the dawn of renewed “hope.” It is a play divided into three acts: the “whys,” or the reasons we were dragged into Iraq in the first place; the “hows,” or the “ways and means that should never be allowed to take us into war again;” and lastly, what the editors call, “collateral damage,” or, the repercussions of the foreign policy folly. By avoiding the more cumbersome division of “who, what, when, where, why, and how,” this simple division suits this slim book well. Diatribes against the usual suspects—Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, et al—are minimized, as are other, more nuanced topics, such as the catch-up of some of the military to learn urban military tactics. What follows, then, is a decent primer fit not just for students, but also for an obsequious Democratic Congress, as well as each and every team member for the administration of President Barack Obama.


Taken as a whole, Lessons proves to be an excellent briefing for a complex set of circumstances. When it comes to explaining the Iraq War, many pieces have been jiggered and juggled into place, nearly all of which are covered in this book: the squandering of international goodwill and cooperation after September 11, 2001; the Bush doctrine of preventive war; oil politics; terrorism; weapons of mass destruction (or lack thereof); and the role of private contractors, to name a few. Likewise, the repercussions of former President Bush’s closefisted approach to the global “war on terror” are given limelight, especially the degeneration of constitutional rights at home; torture; the economic costs of the continuing crisis; media complacency or manipulation; coercion of the Coalition of the Willing; war profiteering; and America’s slide from a role of international leadership, to name many. Those keeping up with the nuts and bolts of the multifaceted endeavor in Iraq will be reassured by material from Frances Fitzgerald (shifting justifications for the war, incuriosity of the Bush administration on Iraqi history and culture); Ivan Eland (for American and global security it is necessary to reduce our foreign, military presence); Jeffrey Laurenti (the U.S. needs to embrace multilateralism and abandon isolationist unilateralism); Phyllis Bennis (on the so-called Coalition of the Willing); and Jules Lobel (curtailing of civil liberties). In other words, some of the chapters provide little new material to the discourse on the Iraq War, but this does not detract from the collection as a whole. To collate a primer on any subject one needs to run the gamut, from tried and true arguments to the more imaginative; in this, Lessons for the most part succeeds. Keeping the reader on her toes, however, intriguing contributions pepper the anthology. Norman Solomon’s article on media coverage of the Iraq War, for one, is a welcome essay. He indicts the New York Times for echoing American national security policy: “The paper’s news department has fostered reporting that internalizes and promotes the basic worldviews of the country’s national security state,” he asserts. “In effect, a reporter who is pro-war qualifies as ‘objective,’ while any stray reporter who sounds antiwar is quickly tagged as biased.” Many media critics may agree with Solomon’s assertions, but the Times’ exposé of, for example, connections between military experts in major media outlets to the Pentagon shows the limits of any internalization at the paper. Solomon’s allegation may not sit too well, either, with Times news correspondents like John Burns and Dexter Filkins who contributed consistent, excellent news coverage of the Iraq conflict. Nonetheless, the publication of former Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s memoir, What Happened (Public Affairs, 2008), in which he claims selling the war to the media was too easy adds fuel to Solomon’s contentious—and necessary—debate. Hans Blix also provides a refreshing contribution to Lessons. Up until the invasion, Blix was a major actor in international debate, doing his utmost to convince Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair he needed more time to conduct weapons inspections—for weapons that never existed. His chapter fully indicts the Bush administration, claiming that the U.S.’s “failure to allow inspections… led to inaccurate or misleading assertions,” and that the most “significant distortion of the data on Iraq was the suggestion that the failure of Iraq to verify its destruction of stockpiles and chemical and biological weapons that had existed years before was proof that these weapons were still in Iraq’s arsenal.” Indeed, we are familiar with the charges against Bush, but unlike many detractors, Blix is eager to move beyond the period and to atone for America’s belligerence. Taking this mantle, Blix calls on all “major nuclear states” (although, if armed with nuclear weapons, are you anything but major?) to embrace steps aimed at removing the rationales for war (like those leveled at Iraq), as adopted by a committee he chaired, the cheekily named Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission. Blix’s eleven-part plan is ambitious, and necessary. Obama should study the list and debate its substance in an internationally televised forum. The world can hardly take another setback like the Iraq War; Hans Blix is doing his best to see that it does not. The reasons for stumbling into the Iraq War, its resulting imbroglio, and the repercussions at home and broad that will take decades to recover are, when taken as a whole, extremely complex; inasmuch, individually these elements are of great consequence. Fred Barbash’s contribution, for example, on the war powers of the executive and legislative branches is a subject deserving of serious deliberation and scrutiny. Americans deserve to know whether Obama will continue Bush’s constitutional power grab, or seek to roll it back. Similarly, Congress, especially Democrats, must publicly discuss their complacency in allowing the former Commander-in-Chief to wield so much destructive power, as well as their collective, lackadaisical approach to their Article I responsibilities of declaring war (and not simply acquiescing to it). “Article II assigns to the president the role of commander in chief of the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy, not commander in chief of war,” Barbash solemnly reminds us. The book is not without fault, though. There is hardly any material emanating from the Iraqi perspective, for one. And I cannot understand why the volume is so thin. Including the introduction, prologue, epilogue, sixteen separate essays, short biographies of the contributors, and the index, Lessons rings in at a mere 149 pages. Considering the overwhelming amount of information available to each of the given topics, I am surprised the book is not more robust. By comparison, Lloyd Gardner and Marilyn Young’s anthology Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam (New Press, 2007) a collection that also laments the U.S.’s inability to learn from foreign policy mistakes, weighs in at over 300 pages, and is printed in smaller type to boot. Because of the truncation of Pemberton and Hartung’s collection, the reader may sometimes finish an essay still feeling hungry. Hartung’s contribution (on war profiteering) comes to mind. He sets us up with a cursory review of a fascinating handful of case studies of corporations making money hand-over-fist off contracts in Iraq, (Halliburton, Custer Battles, Parsons Corporation) before teasing us with a brief paragraph on the “policy profiteers.” The article then comes to a screeching halt with a four point, bulleted list of policy reform recommendations to prevent war profiteering in the future, before ending with the singular statement, “These initial steps would go a long way towards preventing fraud and misconduct in future conflicts.” Why this abridgement? His glancing review of policy profiteers, “individuals who advocated for the war with Iraq at the same time that they stood to gain from it,” including the likes of R. James Woolsey and Richard Perle, is a fascinating and tantalizing nugget.  Disappointingly, we are given little elaboration. Others too provide shortened versions of a well-versed argument, but while they leave the reader craving more, they do not entirely frustrate. Outside this anthology, Michael Klare, Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, for example, have books with parallel themes to sell. Nevertheless, they do an excellent job of synthesizing their longer arguments for this collection. Lessons from Iraq is better for having them contribute what appear to be excellent introductions to their lengthier works. Many critics of the war claim to know the “real” reason for the invasion, and so Michael Klare cogently discusses the motive for the Iraq War “hiding in plain sight:” oil. Even those in the upper echelons of Washington have professed the same (Alan Greenspan admits as much in his biography). Still, few discuss this motivation as coherently or persuasively as Klare does, and considering many “know” we went after oil, I am astonished at the relative lack of critique centered on this objective. Klare also correctly asserts that Iraq’s oil is “only part of Washington’s motive for invading Iraq; far more significant is the geopolitical objective of maintaining control over the entire Persian Gulf region—the source of three-fifths of the world’s oil supply.” His warnings are real and dire: “With the United States becoming ever more dependent on imported petroleum, we face the prospect of a long series of wars and military interventions over the control of foreign oil.” Sometimes we cannot see things because they are too obvious; Klare reminds us of our unwitting blindness. Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes also provide a valuable and absorbing essay, one that stands in as a concise synthesis of their collaborative effort, The Three Trillion Dollar War (Norton, 2008). Divided into twelve lessons, their chapter is one of the more thorough and engaging in this collection. In the case of the Iraq War, the authors argue “not only did its advocates underestimate the true costs, but they have attempted to keep down the apparent costs of the war in order to make it more politically palatable. In doing so, they may have increased the real costs.” Those familiar with their $3 trillion dollar assessment for the costs of the Iraq War may be aware of some of the accounting methods in use, such as not raising taxes in a time of war, chronic underestimations of the actual costs of the war, or the use of private contractors to disguise some of the expenses.

Many of the points discussed in their article were, however, refreshing takes on the economic costs of our misadventure, shedding light on what could otherwise be a dull subject (i.e., budgets and fiscal responsibility). Take for instance Lesson Eight on macroeconomic consequences. In short, the authors argue that relatively speaking, war causes the economy to suffer “from a deficiency in aggregate demand;” meaning that the multiplier effects of other investments (e.g., investment in green technology research, infrastructure) are minimized because money diverted to the war tends to pay for the war itself, and then to its repercussions for years to come (e.g., veterans' care). Money spent on schools and infrastructure has capacity for aiding long-term growth, but funds sidelined into Iraq are sapping this potentiality. Stiglitz and Bilmes do a fine job of accounting for the unseen costs of the Iraq War, present and future. In twelve short, but essential lessons, this pair of economists provides a class on war-budgeting one cannot afford to miss.

Imaginative Contributions

Either because of a fresh approach or out of sheer imagination, a pair of articles is especially noteworthy. Chalmers Johnson, a staunch critic of America’s “commitment to empire,” contributes one of the more stimulating pieces to Lessons. His essay begins with unsurprising criticism of American imperial ambitions, the culmination of post-Cold War ambitions in Iraq, and the impending downfall of American hegemony. For those familiar with Johnson’s work, it is a theme he often promotes, often with devastating commentary and insight. “A country can be democratic, or it can be imperialist, but it cannot for long be both. The U.S. political system failed to prevent this combination from developing, and I believe that it is by now probably incapable of correcting it,” he warns. Many, while lamenting the downslide of American stature in the world, may agree with Johnson’s premise, but most, I would hope, are more cautious when it comes to predicting a sunset on American democracy. Yet Johnson does this with such a tantalizing (albeit worrisome) hypothesis, it seems almost out of place with the essays to follow. “There is an alternative,” he teases. “The United States could, like the British Empire after World War II, keep its democracy by giving up its empire.” Soon after, though, Johnson tells us how he really feels. “Could the American people themselves restore constitutional government?” he queries. His prognosis is bleak, and while he is not fully convinced of the possibility, Johnson posits, “It is possible that, at some future moment, the U.S. military could actually take over the government and declare a dictatorship… That is, after all, how the Roman Empire ended.” After all, the military brass helped to oust their “civilian overlord” Donald Rumsfeld, replacing him with a CIA insider, Robert Gates, who “might be receptive to an unconstitutional scheme hatched by rogue military officers.” Such postulations are: hyperbolic, ruminations of a leftist nut, conspiratorial, a political parlor game, or serious intellectual food for thought—take your pick. Fascinating as Johnson’s essay is, it seems out of place in a series of more “conventional” articles by less controversial figures. Then again, in light of the “usual” arguments over the Iraq War, Johnson’s musings are a welcome diversion.

Kudos also goes to Pemberton and Hartung for capping the book with a contribution from poet C.K. Williams. His contribution reads as a poetic, poignant, summation of the past eight years of American foreign policy, and is worth the price of admission alone. Indeed, it is quite moving. Williams provides a literary contribution to a subject that is all too often attacked with smugness, righteous indignation, or pedantic detachment.


We are in dire need of a manual from our intellectuals on how to make the United States not just more cautious about getting into the next war, but in how to transcend conflict altogether. If this is what you seek, Lessons from Iraq will disappoint. Liberals, like Michael Ignatieff, who supported the invasion of Iraq partly based on belief of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s intentions to use weapons of mass destruction2, have legitimate points of contention. And with recent turmoil in places like Darfur and Burma, where no strong, democratic  state is eager to intervene with or without UN or international sanction, the ideas of some liberals and neoconservatives alike—that humanitarian reasons justify crossing political boundaries, by force if necessary3—warrants somber public debate. It is to this discourse that Lessons makes its contribution; that is, the argument that war as a last resort is a justifiable means, so long as the ends are righteous. Lessons from Iraq provides a useful political commentary and assessment of how, by invading Iraq on a foundation of false promises, the United States failed to live up to its ideals of constitutional democracy and inspiration to the rest of the world. With all the wrong reasons discussed for invading Iraq, the abstractions of such mistakes (and repercussions) must be put into perspective. We must be reminded of the realities of the horrors of war, and the alarming ramifications of such vainglorious adventures, and to see the world and our behavior within it from a more humane perspective. “There have been moments when unviolent men may seem to have usurped the prestige and authority of our violent men, but these have been the briefest aberrations,” C.K. Williams writes. “The world’s violent men have always demonstrated that the state of unviolence thus postulated, precisely because it is unviolent, engenders danger and is to be mistrusted.” We would all benefit by placing this book on the nightstand of President Obama as a nightly reminder of how America, to put it mildly, screwed up.

1. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. “The Making of a Mess,” New York Review of Books September 23, 2004.

2. Michael Ignatieff. “The Year of Living Dangerously: A Liberal Supporter of the War Looks Back,” New York Times Magazine  March  14, 2004.

3. Robert Kaplan. “Aid at the Point of a Gun,” New York Times May 14, 2008; David Rieff. “Humanitarian Vanities,” New York Times June 1, 2008.

August 22, 2008

Chalmers Johnson, CK Williams, Hans Blix, Iraq, Joseph Stiglitz, Linda Bilmes, Michael Ignatieff, Michael Klare, Miriam Pemberton, William Hartung, United States