Top 10 lessons of the Iraq War

This month marks the ninth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Regardless of your views on the wisdom of that decision, it's fair to say the results were not what most Americans expected. Now that the war is officially over and most U.S. forces have withdrawn, what lessons should Americans (and others) draw from the experience? There are many lessons that one might learn, of course, but here are my Top 10 Lessons from the Iraq War.

Lesson #1: The United States lost. The first and most important lesson of Iraq war is that we didn't win in any meaningful sense of that term. The alleged purpose of the war was eliminating Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, but it turns out he didn't have any. Oops. Then the rationale shifted to creating a pro-American democracy, but Iraq today is at best a quasi-democracy and far from pro-American. The destruction of Iraq improved Iran's position in the Persian Gulf -- which is hardly something the United States intended -- and the costs of the war (easily exceeding $1 trillion dollars) are much larger than U.S. leaders anticipated or promised. The war was also a giant distraction, which diverted the Bush administration from other priorities (e.g., Afghanistan), and it made the United States much less popular around the world.

This lesson is important because supporters of the war are already marketing a revisionist version. In this counter-narrative, the surge in 2007 was a huge success (it wasn't, because it failed to produce political reconciliation) and Iraq is now on the road to stable and prosperous democracy. And the costs weren't really that bad. Another variant of this myth is the idea that President George W. Bush and Gen. David Petraeus had "won" the war by 2008, but President Barack Obama then lost it by getting out early. This view ignores the fact that the Bush administration negotiated the 2008 Status of Forces agreement that set the timetable for U.S. withdrawal, and Obama couldn't stay in Iraq once the Iraqi government made it clear it wanted us out.

The danger of this false narrative is obvious: if Americans come to see the war as a success -- which it clearly wasn't -- they may continue to listen to the advice of its advocates and be more inclined to repeat similar mistakes in the future.

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Stephen M. Walt

What's going on in Xinjiang?

Will China hold together? I'd say yes. But as scholars and pundits debate China's future, a critical issue is whether the government will face powerful internal challenges of the sort that eventually helped bring down the USSR. One piece of that puzzle is whether minority groups such as China's restive Uighur population in Xinjiang province will pose a significant threat to internal stability.

I know very little about this issue, but I found this brief commentary by Arabinda Acharya and Wang Zhihao, two researchers at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, to be rather eye-opening. Factoid #1: Acharya and Wang point out that China is one of the few countries in the world that spends more on domestic security than it does on defense, a fact that reflects the CCP's long-term concern about internal order.

Equally interesting was their reminder about the dearth of reliable information on the true situation in Xinjiang. Money quotation:

"The Xinjiang situation is also characterized by a lack of facts. Accounts of events come mainly from two sources: state-sponsored media and overseas Uighur activists who claim to have sources within the region. Reporting by these two entities however cannot be independently verified, due to China's ban on the presence of outside media in the region. Therefore, it has become difficult to determine where facts end and embellishment begins.

State media attributes the incidents to rioters or terrorists belonging to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) also going by the name Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). Beijing also accuses overseas Uighur organizations especially the World Uighur Congress for inciting unrests in Xinjiang. Uighur activist groups however, claim that the protests are acts of the local Uighur lashing out at Beijing's "systematic oppression." These incidents nevertheless, are being exploited to garner international support for resisting what is being termed as "state oppression" in Xinjiang. As the facts continue to be obfuscated, it has become difficult to distinguish protests against specific grievances by local Uighur from organized acts of terrorism."

As we've seen in many other contexts, the dearth of reliable information is exacerbated by the contending parties' incentives to misrepresent what is really going on, making it extremely difficult for outsiders to judge either the threat of instability or the appropriateness of the government's counter-measures. And insofar as internal instability poses a significant threat to China's continued economic expansion, it means that outsiders will find it even more difficult to forecast its trajectory with confidence.

For their part, Acharya and Wang offer a fairly sanguine forecast, opining that "Fortunately for China, the situation in Xinjiang is not and does not portend to be a problem of massive proportions." Nonetheless, they warn that overly harsh measures could fuel greater Uighur resistance, and they conclude that "Beijing would do well to temper its actions with appropriate sensitivity to overall issues involved rather than attempt to crush all dissent with mere force."

Good advice, I suspect, but it will be interesting to see if China's leaders can follow this prescription for subtlety, especially internal discontent increases.

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