- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Stuart Montgomery
Best Defense defense seminars bureau
A recent panel at Georgetown University was supposed to be about Syria, but it turned out to be about the lessons of the American experience in Iraq, seen in light of the possible use of American force in Syria.
Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who served in Iraq and many other Mideast posts, opined that we don’t know if Iraq was worth it yet. He said that we do know that we have paid a large price, in both dollars and blood, to build a relationship with Iraq and put it on the right trajectory.
Professor Andrew Bacevich’s opinion on the Iraq War was more concise: no, it was not worth it. Examining the war through a Clausewitzian lens, he argued that the war’s original aims were not met. That is, the United States didn’t find any weapons of mass destruction, and the war’s later objectives were murky and amounted to a mission beyond what the military should handle: changing the way people live.
When the conversation turned to Syria, the panelists’ comments had a common theme: restraint and limitation. Crocker emphasized the unintended consequences that accompany war and the need to understand other countries and their "ground rules." He said we don’t understand all the parties involved or the situation in its entirety. The best option, he said, is to contain the conflict in Syria from spreading throughout the region, and to provide assistance to the refugees.
Both panelists argued for reconnecting military action to political discussion. Bacevich highlighted the current absence of civil-military dialogue in our nation. Crocker noted that Clausewitz taught that war is a continuation of politics, and so the end of war must be a return to politics. He emphasized that war must be thought of in the full extent: Why we are fighting, what we desire to accomplish, and how we plan to end the war?
A secondary issue was how Iran may perceive the outcome if the United States declines to intervene in Syria. Here again the panelists emphasized the need for restraint, and Bacevich emphasized the need to develop a deterrence posture. Both men noted that, after 12 years of war, the nation is not just tired of war and tired of paying for it, but also questioning the value of war. We still haven’t fully answered that question about Iraq, and current public opinion is not in trying to find new answers in Syria.