Lessons Learned (and Not)

Seven things we've learned after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ten years ago this March, George W. Bush launched America's invasion of Iraq. Had Twitter existed back then, #ShockandAwe would have been trending. Ground operations advanced quickly. By May, the president stood in front of a banner declaring "Mission Accomplished." Simultaneously, in a less-heralded but perhaps even more egregiously premature assessment, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared the end of "major combat" in Afghanistan. At the time, only 8,000 U.S. troops were in Afghanistan. Today, more than eight times as many are there.

These conflicts will not only define America in the eyes of the world for many decades to come, but they will also shape the views of a generation of men and women who will decide where, when, and how the United States will flex its muscles internationally. That can be beneficial if the right lessons are drawn. But in an America that simply wants to get out and not look back, the absence to date of orderly, critical analysis of where the country went wrong has been striking.

Nothing underscores this more than this spring's other major anniversary, albeit one likely to pass largely unnoticed. On March 29, 1973, the last U.S. troops withdrew from South Vietnam, which fell into communist hands just two years later.

If Vietnam seems remote, a baby-boomer nightmare far removed from the world of drones and cyberattacks, look again. The ghost of Vietnam has been omnipresent for years in planning by senior U.S. officials and military officers -- sometimes leading to successful initiatives, sometimes placing a phantom hand on the tiller of state and guiding policies into the shoals.

The officers who led U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan studied the lessons of insurgency learned in Vietnam, clearly shaping their thinking. Gen. David Petraeus, who attended West Point during the last years of the Vietnam War, titled his doctoral dissertation The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam. In his memoir, Stanley McChrystal, the Afghanistan war general fired by President Barack Obama, tells the story of a "memorable night in Kabul" when he and diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who served in Vietnam as a young Foreign Service officer, telephoned historian Stanley Karnow to ask about the lessons that disastrous war holds for today's Afghanistan conflict. Holbrooke spoke openly and passionately about the need to avoid that fate -- an endless, costly war. But as McChrystal writes, "the lessons to be drawn were anything but incontrovertible." The same might be said about the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, but nonetheless we must try to identify those we can. Here are a few.

1. The Powell Doctrine still resonates. Shock and awe was supposed to be the ultimate manifestation of the post-Vietnam impulse not to get bogged down in another quagmire. It was the Powell Doctrine: Set clear goals, invest sufficient resources, minimize casualties, and have an exit strategy -- Las Vegas-style, making the points with pyrotechnics and news releases. But you have to follow the full prescription. You have to not only set goals but set the right ones -- whether it's destroying an enemy or rebuilding a society. When they get muddled, problems follow. And you must have a genuine exit strategy that stops you from wading farther into a swamp, which is different from simply announcing a victory. See the first Gulf War for an example of it working. Needless to say, things didn't pan out the second time around.

2. Beware your past failures. Obama's foreign-policy leadership team was all hugely influenced by Vietnam -- one regional ambassador even told me that he has never had a discussion with John Kerry regarding Afghanistan in which the now secretary of state did not raise the subject. Obama's hesitance to get drawn into Libya (except in a very limited way) and Syria is emblematic of this worldview, as is the focus on "light-footprint" options, such as drones, Special Forces, and cyberattacks, that seem to offer an escape from the Vietnam syndrome.

But that syndrome can also push America into premature announcements of exits (Iraq and Afghanistan), the use of morally dubious means (drone wars), or hesitation to intervene where it might serve U.S. national interests or the global good (Syria, possibly Iran, and perhaps even places such as Mali).

3. Know your enemy. Consider Afghanistan. If a reasonable goal were to defeat the enemy that caused the 9/11 attacks, the United States nonetheless got into trouble when it asserted that the Taliban, by supporting al Qaeda, were part of that enemy. To defeat them, the country lurched into an alliance with Pakistani agencies that probably did as much or more to support America's terrorist adversaries as they did to help the United States. In Iraq, it took years to realize that the Sunni insurgents could be, if not brought over to America's side, at least taken off the battlefield. Sadly, in Vietnam, the United States never understood that it was fighting an indigenous nationalist insurgency, not a communist plot directed by Moscow and Beijing.

4. Know your limitations. The United States may be the world's most powerful country (it still is, by a lot, and will be for many decades), but that does not mean it has the power to achieve whatever it seeks to do. The country faces financial constraints. There are limits to what its allies are willing to support. There are cultural, historical, geographical, and demographic obstacles that the United States can never surmount. This means that we must test our theories relentlessly -- and then retest them and then test them again. Intransigence or groupthink must not be confused with leadership or clarity of vision. Situations change. So too should policies.

5. Beware of certainties. Afghanistan to many -- me among them -- was "the good war." It was the one America should be fighting rather than Iraq. In the end, however, the likelihood of achieving any lasting positive results there is even remoter than it appears to be in Iraq, which is saying something given how volatile and worrisome conditions in Iraq are. The United States is likely to end in Afghanistan by handing considerable power or at least opportunities back to the Taliban, placing bets on a corrupt, weak regime, and leaving the people, notably the women of that country, vulnerable to new horrors. And there's nothing good about that.

6. Beware your last success. Bad historical analogies are common -- and not just when it comes to Vietnam. The Middle East was not Eastern Europe and did not welcome Western "liberation." No flowers or sweets greeted U.S. troops along Baghdad's streets -- only IEDs. And the surge in Iraq was not an indicator that a similar approach would work in Afghanistan, as Petraeus discovered far too late to make a difference.

7. Wars are often won by diplomats and businessmen -- not soldiers. If history shows one thing, it is that we seldom have sufficient perspective to know what is in our long-term interest. At the end of the war, Vietnam, after all, was universally regarded as a failure. Today, however, the country has something like a market economy and is integrated into Southeast Asia -- and the Soviet Union is gone, in part because it bled out economically while supporting ideological allies like the North Vietnamese.

The bottom line is simply this: America ignores these lessons at its peril. Both Iraq and Afghanistan in some way are reactions to Vietnam -- but also reminders that the opposite of a policy failure is no guarantee of success.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

Does John Kerry Matter?

Why Obama's new secretary of state might not have much room to run.

As John Kerry launches his maiden tour of world capitals as secretary of state, foreign leaders are looking for signs as to how Obama administration foreign policy is likely to change during the president's second term. The short answer is: They should look in the mirror. If Obama's foreign policy changes at all, it will be because the situations commanding America's attention internationally have shifted in some material way.

In fact, because the world is likely to undergo important shifts in the months ahead, the real questions about what will change ought to be coming from the Obama team itself. The members of Obama's brain trust ought to be asking how they need to adapt to the global situation they are likely to face over the next four years. Staying the course or simply trying to reduce America's overseas exposure due to recent wars and missteps won't be adequate.

Kerry has already given some clues to the kind of secretary of state he will be. His first speech suggested that at least for a while, the United States' new top diplomat would sound rather like the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That speech was very much directed to a domestic audience. For the public at large, it made the case that diplomacy was relevant. For Washington, it made the case that it needed to be funded. For the world, it didn't really suggest a new vision.

There is a reason for this. The primary foreign-policy maker in this administration remains the president. The primary location for the shaping of major policy decisions remains the White House and the National Security Staff. Of the most influential foreign-policy makers in this administration, most of the important ones are remaining right where they were: in the White House. That includes not only the president but also Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and Donilon's former deputy and now Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. McDonough's replacement, Tony Blinken, didn't have to carry his boxes very far either as he already was the VP's national security advisor in the last term. So continuity should be expected.

You wouldn't know it from all the handwringing on Capitol Hill or media navel-gazing about cabinet choices, but neither Kerry nor his eventual counterpart at the Pentagon is likely to change very much at all about the administration's international agenda. This is true to some degree because, as just noted, the policymaker-in-chief remains the same guy supported by the same team in the same place. But it is also true because the important drivers of that agenda are beyond the control of the top guys in Foggy Bottom or at the Pentagon.

The most important of these external drivers is what's actually happening in the world. Fantasies about America pulling the strings for the planet aside, the reality is that most foreign policy is reactive ("Events, my dear boy, events."). Next, there is the important and often overlooked reality that most U.S. foreign policy conforms to historical norms and patterns. Shifts from one administration to another are much less drastic than most in the press would have you believe -- see, for instance, the striking similarities between George W. Bush and Barack Obama's foreign policies with regard to drones, treatment of terrorists, getting out of Iraq, and many other issues. Indeed, it is worth noting that while March marks the 10th anniversary of going into Iraq, this month, February, marks the 20th anniversary of the first Gulf War: Every President since George H.W. Bush has had to manage military challenges associated with Iraq (and with Middle East-linked terrorism, for that matter).

Taking these factors into account, Kerry's room to actually make big adjustments to U.S. foreign policy is very limited. To the extent that he does, it will really be at the margins. Which is not to say there are no hints of what those differences will be.

First, Kerry in his initial speech and in private discussions at the State Department has stressed the importance of climate and related issues like oceans. He has also underscored his intention to focus on the economic impact on Americans of successful foreign policy. Both were priorities of his predecessor Hillary Clinton, but Kerry has seemed to give them special prominence. He also, in going to Europe and the Middle East on this first trip, seems to be playing to his strengths, to areas to which he devoted special attention during his years on the Foreign Relations Committee (he even lived in Europe as the son of diplomat).

Some have sought to read something into his decision not to visit Israel on this trip to the Middle East. But he is going with the president in a few weeks. Besides, not only have the Israelis sent high-level visitors like their national security advisor to Washington to help negotiate the details of the president's visit, but it also seems unlikely that the visit will really break new ground. The hope, rather, is to restore the U.S.-Israel relationship to a stable footing and lay the groundwork for initiatives in the months and years to come.

Instead of focusing on Israel, Kerry will on this trip hone in on other top priorities that demand immediate attention, from Syria to Egypt to Mali to Iran's nuclear program and stability throughout the Middle East. The complications associated with whether the Syrian opposition would be appropriately represented at the planned meetings with Kerry in Rome on Thursday indicate just how fragile and worthy of his attention these issues are.

None of this is to say that Kerry's role is somehow fully predetermined. Several factors are likely to give him the opportunity to rise up and tackle the kind of issues that have distinguished his more important, successful predecessors. One is that the world is likely to keep him running from crisis to crisis throughout his term in office. If, as seems likely, the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, China, and even East Asia are all the scenes of emerging, deepening or complicating crises, then no matter what the White House's intentions or plans, then managing the situations that arise will demand Kerry personally play an active and central role in each of these areas.

For example, Kerry is likely to have to play an important ongoing role in managing the consequences of the fall of Bashar al-Assad. These will not only require helping to build an effective international coalition to assist with shaping, supporting, and influencing a successor regime, they may also require humanitarian action to help refugees or to stop the retaliatory slaughter of Alawites, widely seen as the backbone of the Assad regime. Further, as Syria decays, Iran and Hezbollah are likely to shift their arms and attentions elsewhere. If they send arms to Lebanon, for example, Israel will likely respond with force. This could have consequences in Gaza or the West Bank. Instability in Syria and a wounded Iran could have ripple effects in Iraq or make a deal over Iran's nuclear program even trickier to handle. Egypt, too, is in a precarious place, as could be Jordan. Emergency, high-level, activist diplomacy may therefore be required of Kerry throughout his term -- and his measure will be not necessarily the big, new foreign-policy vision he offers so much as his energy, capability, and creativity in dealing with managing these problems on a daily level. Think tactics, not strategy.

The same is true of a U.S.-China relationship likely to feel strains over the emerging "cool war" in cyber as well as around China-Japan tensions and economic issues. The same is true with regard to the saber rattling in North Korea or the military's escalating tempo in Africa. And of course, some potential crises remain just below the surface -- such as, to choose one example, the ones we might face if Pakistan is rocked by instability.

Finally, Kerry will also have several areas of opportunity. One, mentioned already, is to be a champion of raising climate as an American foreign policy and national security priority. Another might be building on initiatives to establish a U.S.-EU trade deal to revitalize the transatlantic relationship and find new ways to collaborate with our most important partners in the four years ahead.

Kerry will have to make scores more trips like the one on which he has embarked this week before we know whether he will be successful or not, a player in his own right or not, a gamechanger, or just a senior-level aide carrying out the president's wishes. But one thing we can say for certain is that even if the White House is counting on continuity and playing the lead in setting foreign policy, the current and emerging global situation will not take a back seat. As it has been throughout history, the world will play as big a role as anyone in Washington in shaping the opportunities and challenges by which Kerry's tenure will be measured.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images