In the aftermath of national catastrophes, people have a natural tendency to look for an explanation based on a single point of failure. Such explanations are often unhelpful in devising subsequent policy. Simplistic lessons drawn from World War I persuaded the United States to embrace isolationism and Europe appeasement, both of which contributed to World War II. The lesson many Americans drew from not opposing Hitler sooner -- "no more Munichs" -- became a powerful rationale for the United States' entanglement in Vietnam in the 1960s. The subsequent national rejection of counterinsurgency missions -- "no more Vietnams" -- greatly hampered U.S. military performance in Iraq. If the current debate over the United States' failure in Iraq is to yield constructive results, it will have to go beyond bumper-sticker conclusions -- no more preemption, no more democracy promotion, no more nation building.

Individuals have been the first target of criticism: President George W. Bush, of course, but also Vice President Dick Cheney; Donald Rumsfeld, the former secretary of defense; General Tommy Franks, the former commander of U.S. Central Command; Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy secretary of defense; Douglas Feith, the former undersecretary of defense for policy; L. Paul Bremer, the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority; and George Tenet, the former CIA director. All except two of these individuals have been out of office for some time: the Bush administration is already on its second defense secretary, third CIA director, third commanding general in Iraq, and fourth top diplomat there -- and thus far, none of these changes has reversed a worsening situation. This suggests that the source of at least some of the United States' difficulties in Iraq transcends particular personalities.

Meanwhile, the White House, Congress, the State Department, the Defense Department, and the CIA have engaged in continuous blame shifting over Iraq. President Bush and Congress have accused the intelligence community of misleading them about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Tenet has responded that the administration's senior policymakers never seriously debated the decision to go to war. Rumsfeld says that the president never asked his advice on the matter. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell says that he provided the president with his views on the wisdom of war unasked, but to no effect. Former intelligence officers allege that the Defense Department and the White House manipulated, exaggerated, and manufactured intelligence appraisals to support a decision to go to war. Bremer says that he learned after serving several months in Iraq that the Pentagon was not sharing his reporting with the White House or the State Department. Tenet insists that the CIA warned the administration of the difficulties that would be encountered in the occupation (and recent press reports quoting CIA memos substantiate this).

During the Vietnam War, dissatisfaction with the conflict first became evident at the bottom of the military pyramid, and criticism of the U.S. military's performance was often leveled at its lowest ranks: the conscript riflemen whose disaffection, alcohol consumption, and drug usage increased as the war dragged on. Today, no one is complaining about the performance of the United States' all-volunteer force. In this war, dissent has emerged among very senior officers and been directed at the top leadership. Last year, in what became known as "the revolt of the generals," half a dozen recently retired U.S. commanders, several of whom had just led major units in Iraq, came out publicly against Rumsfeld's management of the war. In May of this year, the Armed Forces Journal printed an article by Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling entitled "A Failure in Generalship." Yingling, who is a veteran of two tours in Iraq and who is still on active duty, wrote of both Vietnam and Iraq, "These debacles are not attributable to individual failures, but rather to a crisis in an entire institution: America's general officer corps. America's generals have failed to prepare our armed forces for war and advise civilian authorities on the application of force to achieve the aims of policy."

Similarly, the U.S. media have engaged in a good deal of self-criticism over their coverage of the war. The New York Times apologized for its prewar coverage of nonexistent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Thomas Ricks, The Washington Post's defense correspondent, lambasted his own paper's editorial page for its pro-war boosterism in his book on the occupation. Bob Woodward, the Post's most famous journalist, acknowledged that he was part of the "group think" that helped sell the war. Bill Moyers devoted an entire PBS broadcast to the role of journalists in marketing the war. Dan Rather, of CBS, admitted that there was no excuse for his own performance in this regard.

As the difficulties and setbacks in Iraq have mounted, the level of partisan political recrimination has also increased. The Democrats have blamed the difficulties in Iraq on the Republicans. The Republicans have blamed the Iraqis. Now in control of Congress, the Democrats have insisted on conditioning further U.S. assistance to Iraq on Baghdad's meeting certain benchmarks. If the Iraqis fail to meet these goals, as seems likely, Congress may cut back funding for the war. This will allow the Republicans to blame the Democrats for the impending defeat, while the Democrats will blame the Iraqis.

In truth, there is more than enough blame to go around. The United States went into Iraq with a higher level of domestic support for war than at almost anytime in its history. Congress authorized the invasion by an overwhelming bipartisan majority -- something that had not occurred for the Gulf War a decade earlier, nor for any of the highly controversial military operations of the Clinton era, in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Precisely because responsibility for this misguided enterprise is so widely shared, the temptation to make the Iraqis the scapegoat for U.S. failure may ultimately prove irresistible.

But to serve any useful purpose, the debate over who lost Iraq will need to cut a good deal deeper than this. Reform comes in the wake of disaster. Sadly, Iraq represents an opportunity in this regard, one too good to be passed up. Whether one concludes that the war itself was a mistake or merely that its execution was badly managed, Americans need to consider wherein their leaders, institutions, and policies have been at fault.


So far, there is little disinterested information available on decisionmaking within the Bush administration. Nearly all of it has come from self-serving sources, such as former officials writing in their memoirs or current officials speaking anonymously to journalists. From these first drafts of history, one thing already seems clear: neither the president nor the secretary of defense relied on structured debate and disciplined dissent to aid his decision-making. Under their leadership, both the White House and the Pentagon used management models that emphasized inspiration and guidance from above and loyalty and compliance from below. In such an atmosphere, individuals within the administration who doubted the wisdom of invading Iraq or the adequacy of plans to occupy and rebuild the country were not encouraged to articulate those concerns. By adopting such a top-down approach to decision-making, the president and the secretary of defense denied themselves the more carefully considered proposals and better analysis that a dialectical process of structured debate would have produced.

Had President Bush fostered debate, the State Department would have made the case for continuing to contain Saddam Hussein. Had the administration investigated the likely costs of occupying and reconstructing Iraq, the arguments for continued containment would have gained additional weight. Had Rumsfeld sought military or civilian expert advice regarding the manpower requirements for stabilizing Iraq, he might have sought to increase rather than decrease the already low estimates he was getting from his field commander, General Franks. Had the White House sought to integrate lessons learned during the various nation-building efforts of the 1990s, many early missteps in Iraq could have been avoided.

To be sure, a candid appraisal of the likely costs and risks of invading Iraq would probably have leaked, gravely complicating the administration's ability to secure congressional and public support for the war. Such fears probably explain why the administration silenced Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki and Assistant to the President for Economic Affairs Lawrence Lindsay after they publicly aired uncomfortably high estimates of the military manpower and economic resources necessary to occupy Iraq.

President Bush is by no means the first U.S. leader to understate the likely costs of an intervention. In 1995, President Bill Clinton promised to have U.S. troops out of Bosnia in a year; they remained a full decade. Yet it is equally true that Clinton was extremely reluctant to commit forces in this and other instances and that his decisions to do so were taken only after the most exhaustive internal debates, in which almost every conceivable alternative was explored, all relevant agencies listened to, and all the downsides considered.

There are undoubtedly costs to dependence on structured debate and disciplined dissent as aids to presidential decision-making. The process is time-consuming, the proceedings cannot be kept entirely confidential, and the ensuing public debate will be anything but disciplined. Yet a decision to go to war should be difficult, not easy. The Founding Fathers intended that these issues should be decided in open congressional deliberations. But current practice has departed so far from this model that the decision to go to war in Iraq was not even fully debated within the executive branch.


Given the lack of receptivity to alternative views at the top, how much blame should be shouldered by people lower down who knew better and failed to speak up or who spoke up but failed to resign when their objections were brushed aside? Should the generals who revolted be condemned for awaiting retirement to lodge their protests? Should the nation foster a more critical climate within its military services, one in which officers are encouraged to challenge not only illegal orders but unwise ones as well?

Probably not. The military demands a higher degree of subordination, obedience, and discipline than other professions. Furthermore, civilian control of the military is an inviolable principle, which means that civilians should bear the chief responsibility when the military is misdirected.

If it is not the military's role to challenge lawful orders, still less is it the role of the press to manufacture controversy where none exists. In a democracy, the primary responsibility for opposing or at least critically examining the case for war falls on the opposition party. If the opposition chooses to duck that responsibility, as the Democrats largely did when the issue was put to them in late 2002, it is hard to fault the press for not stepping in to fill the void.

Much criticism has been leveled at the Bush administration's reliance on young, inexperienced ideologues to staff junior positions within the Coalition Provisional Authority. But this is hardly the primary example of political patronage undermining professional expertise. Bremer filled nearly all the senior jobs in Iraq with seasoned professionals and only turned to the White House patronage machine when the administration proved unable to staff the more junior posts with career professionals. In Washington, it is not the junior but the most senior and influential positions that are filled by individuals chosen primarily for their ideological convictions and personal loyalty.

The U.S. system of political patronage (unique in its scope among the world's democratic governments) ensures a high level of inexperience in the opening years of any presidency, promotes strong barriers to continuity of policy from one administration to the next, and results in diminished competence in a civil service whose members are permanently denied access to positions of greater responsibility. The system effectively insulates political leaders at the top from professional advice from the bottom, imposing several layers of ideological buffer between the two. Some administrations are worse than others in this regard, but all are bad. Neoconservative excess may have led to the current mess in Iraq, but well-meaning liberals are capable of the same sort of folly, as the late David Halberstam documented in The Best and the Brightest, his classic study of Vietnam War-era policymaking.

The U.S. military, police, and intelligence services are already largely fenced off from politicization on the grounds that national security is too important to entrust to amateurs. The nation should seek the same standard of professionalism for the senior civilian officials who staff the Defense Department and other national security agencies, including the National Security Council. Legislation that sets aside a certain proportion of subcabinet and White House staff positions for career professionals would go far toward encouraging continuity of policy and strengthening the competence of incoming administrations. So would a requirement that aspirants for top jobs in the national security field serve some time in another agency or a joint position, just as military officers now must serve at least one tour of duty outside their own branch of service to reach the most senior ranks.


Congress and the White House have already taken corrective action to address the intelligence failure that provided the war's main public rationale, demoting the director of central intelligence and creating a new post of director of national intelligence. Congress has only begun, however, to examine the uses, misuses, and abuses of intelligence by policymakers in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

Corrective action here may be much more difficult. Some would like to further insulate the intelligence community from policymakers, effectively turning it into a fourth branch of government, independent of the executive and unreservedly free to criticize its intentions and undermine its policies. This would be a mistake.

The intelligence community proved overly pessimistic in its assessment of the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. It was equally pessimistic -- if more accurate -- about the problems likely to be encountered by a U.S. occupation of Iraq. Policymakers seized on one assessment and ignored the other. The problem was less one of flawed intelligence than of flawed use of intelligence by policymakers.

Intelligence analysts will almost always emphasize the downside of any risk and can never be one hundred percent certain in their judgments. Congress and the public should thus recognize and accept the inherent limitations of secret intelligence instead of trying to institutionalize yet another check on executive power.

Ineffectual performance in Iraq accompanied by constant blame shifting among Washington's agencies has led some to conclude that the entire interagency structure is defective. While still secretary of defense, Rumsfeld characterized the interagency system as broken, claiming that, as reported in Bob Woodward's State of Denial, "in the 21st Century we're still functioning with an interagency process and governmental structure that is in the industrial age of the last century." In his confirmation hearings to replace Rumsfeld, Robert Gates stated that the lack of interagency collaboration during the war in Iraq highlights the need to compel cooperation in the way the Goldwater-Nichols Act helped the military services work together in the 1980s.

The current system for integrating defense and foreign policy has actually functioned quite well for most of the past 60 years: it helped win the Cold War, unite Europe, cope with the collapse of the Soviet Union, deal with the early challenges of the post-Cold War era, and initially respond to the attacks of 9/11. Arrangements that seemed to be working adequately only six years ago are probably not irremediably broken today. Fixing them does not require a new department of national security or a further expansion of the White House staff, as some have suggested. What would help is legislation establishing a durable division of labor among the State Department, the Defense Department, and other national security agencies that are involved in postconflict nation building.

For the past 15 years, critical functions such as overseeing military and police training, providing humanitarian and reconstruction aid, and promoting democratic development have been repeatedly transferred from the State Department to the Defense Department and back again, leaving each agency uncertain what its long-term responsibilities are and consequently disinclined to invest in improving its performance. An executive order defining such roles, as Gates has proposed, would probably not outlast the administration that issued it. The national security establishment thus needs a legislated reorganization so that it can better conduct postwar stabilization and reconstruction missions, just as the Goldwater-Nichols Act over 20 years ago reorganized the military establishment to more effectively wage war.


Many of those calling for a reduced U.S. military presence in Iraq are simultaneously urging an increase in the size of the army. Underlying this apparent anomaly is widespread confusion regarding the appropriate role of military force in combating violent extremism.

Where the United States puts the bulk of its national security effort is heavily influenced by how Americans conceptualize the struggle against violent extremist movements in the Muslim world. If al Qaeda and its ilk are regarded primarily as criminal conspirators, then the United States needs a counterterrorism strategy that emphasizes police, intelligence, and diplomatic efforts. If the threat is deemed to have metastasized to the point where it is regarded as a global insurgency, then a greater reliance on military force may be justified.

Many experts believe that the threat of Islamist terrorism has indeed grown to the point where its purveyors have the capacity to overturn existing governments and seize control of substantial territory. Others continue to regard al Qaeda and its imitators more as opportunistic parasites that seek to attach themselves to what are essentially nationalist conflicts (much as al Qaeda has attached itself to a Sunni resistance movement in Iraq).

In the case of parasitic relationships, supporting rather than opposing the insurgency can, on occasion, be the best way to marginalize the extremists. This is the approach the United States followed in Afghanistan in the 1980s and in the Balkans in the 1990s, where it supported Muslim insurgencies against Soviet and Serbian domination, respectively. Staying aloof, as the United States did with respect to the Algerian insurgency in the 1990s, is another option. In cases where U.S. national interests dictate some level of involvement against the insurgents, limiting the U.S. role to training, equipping, and advising the counterinsurgents is normally preferable to direct military intervention. In rare circumstances, such as in Afghanistan, that option may not be immediately available, and the burden may fall to U.S. soldiers.

With the unexpected early retirement of John Abizaid as head of U.S. Central Command and the replacement of General George Casey by General David Petraeus as the top commander in Iraq, one of these approaches to counterinsurgency has given way to another. Abizaid and Casey, feeling that the large U.S. military presence in Iraq provoked more resistance than it suppressed, advocated turning combat operations over to Iraqi forces as quickly as possible. They thus concentrated on training and equipping the Iraqi security forces. Petraeus, for his part, believes that U.S. forces employing classic counterinsurgency tactics still have an opportunity to gain the cooperation of the population and give Iraqi politicians the time and space they need to reconcile their differences. The Pentagon's top brass reportedly backed Abizaid and Casey's preference but were overruled by President Bush.

Iraq is, after all, a comparatively small country, yet countering the insurgency there has engaged most of the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps. If future terrorist-linked insurgencies are to be similarly confronted by U.S. forces, then very large numbers will be needed. Alternatively, if the United States chooses in the future to combat insurgencies via local proxies, as it did throughout the Cold War (Vietnam being the sole exception), then a renewed emphasis on training, equipping, and advising foreign forces is in order. In that case, the need is less for a larger army than for one reorganized to better handle these new tasks.

It would be a mistake to employ Iraq as the yardstick by which to gauge the future necessary size and shape of the U.S. military, given that the war was probably unnecessary and the occupation mishandled from the outset. Afghanistan offers a better and somewhat less demanding guide to future requirements. The U.S. effort there has broad (if diminishing) local support, full international legitimacy, and substantial multinational participation. Yet Afghanistan, for all these advantages, is a test the United States is not currently passing. Improvements in the United States' capacity for nation building and counterinsurgency are thus in order.

The Bush administration's rhetoric since 9/11 has accentuated the warlike character of the terrorist threat and the martial nature of the required response. Yet most of the tangible successes in the "war on terror" have come as a result of police, intelligence, and diplomatic activity. Not until U.S. leaders rebalance their rhetoric will it be possible to redirect the government's funding priorities toward the nonmilitary instruments on which the suppression of violent extremist movements is most likely to depend.


Preemption, democracy promotion, and nation building have all been sullied by association with the war in Iraq. All three policies deserve reexamination, but none should be jettisoned entirely.

Over more than two centuries, the United States has conducted dozens of military campaigns, only two of which were in response to attacks on U.S. soil. This record should leave few in doubt that the United States will employ force to protect itself, its friends, and its interests without necessarily waiting to be struck first. To enshrine this principle in publicly proclaimed national doctrine, however, only makes any subsequent resort to force more controversial and hinders the process of attracting allies and securing international sanction for such actions; other nations will never be prepared to exempt the United States from the internationally recognized restraints on the unprovoked use of force. This international resistance to declared U.S. policy was clearly on display when the decision was made to attack Iraq soon after the Bush administration formally adopted preemption as the cornerstone of its new national security strategy. Washington therefore needs to drop "preemption" from the lexicon of its declared national security policy (as the Bush administration has already begun to do) while leaving an appropriate degree of uncertainty in the minds of any potential foes about how the United States might respond to a mounting threat.

Like preemption, democracy promotion has been a component of U.S. foreign policy almost since the country's birth. Beginning in the eighteenth century, most other nations in the Western Hemisphere have adopted political systems modeled, however imperfectly, on the United States' system. After World War II, the United States established strong democracies in Japan and Germany and supported democratization throughout Western Europe, employing a combination of military power, economic assistance, strategic communications (that is, propaganda), and direct, if surreptitious, support to democratic parties. In more recent decades, all of central and most of eastern Europe, nearly all of Latin America, much of East Asia, and some of Africa have become democratic with active U.S. encouragement.

But democratization is no panacea for terrorism and no shortcut to a more pro-U.S. (or pro-Israel) Middle East. Established democracies may not make war on one another, but studies have shown that democratizing nations are highly prone to both internal and external conflicts. Furthermore, democratic governments in Egypt, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia would be more hostile to Israel and less aligned with the United States than the authoritarian regimes they replaced, since public opinion in those countries is more opposed to Israeli and U.S. policy than are their current leaders.

It may well have been a mistake to exempt the Middle East from over 60 years of largely successful U.S. efforts to promote democracy, but it is unrealistic to expect this deficiency to be remedied within a few years. Recent efforts to accelerate political reform in the region have already backfired. Elections are polarizing events, particularly in societies already marked by sectarian conflict, as has been demonstrated recently in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories. Rather than seeking dramatic electoral breakthroughs, let alone imposing reforms, U.S. efforts to advance democracy in the Middle East should focus on building its foundations, including the rule of law, civil society, larger middle classes, and more effective and less corrupt governments.

Nation building also deserves to survive its failure in Iraq. The Bush administration, like the U.S. public, now recognizes that the occupation of that country was mismanaged. As a result, it has embraced the nation-building mission in all but name with the fervor of a new convert. Unfortunately, although the Bush administration's reaction to setbacks in Iraq has been a determination to do better next time, Americans seem more inclined to avoid any such future enterprises.

In fact, both conclusions are valid. The United States should certainly avoid invading large hostile countries on the basis of faulty intelligence and with the support of narrow, unrepresentative coalitions. But not all conflicts are avoidable. Iraq may have been a war of choice, but Afghanistan was not. Both conflicts left the United States with a heavy burden of nation building. Through the 1990s, the Clinton administration slowly learned how costly and time-consuming such missions could be. In Somalia, the United States turned tail at the first sign of opposition. In Haiti, it set an early departure deadline, thereby ensuring that any improvements it introduced would be short-lived. In Bosnia, Clinton set an even shorter timeline, promising to have all U.S. troops out of the country within 12 months. But if Clinton had not learned to avoid setting deadlines, he had at least learned to avoid keeping them. Only late in his second term did he finally acknowledge the open-ended nature of U.S. commitments in both Bosnia and Kosovo.

It has taken the Bush administration a similar amount of time to learn that nation building cannot be done on the cheap. The "surge" of troops into Baghdad is a belated acknowledgment that rebuilding a failed state takes an enormous commitment of manpower, money, and time. This realization may have come too late to rescue the U.S. venture in Iraq. It should, nevertheless, serve as a cautionary guide to such endeavors in the future.


By January 2009, nearly everyone responsible for launching and directing the war in Iraq will have left office. Sorting out who did what will then become a job for historians. In choosing successors, however, Americans should insist on leaders who will foster debate and welcome disciplined dissent. These leaders should be surrounded by advisers chosen primarily for their relevant experience and demonstrated competence, not their ideological purity and partisan loyalty.

Leaders of this caliber, supported by more competent and professional staffs, will make better use of existing structures for policy formulation and implementation. These structures can be strengthened by the establishment of an enduring division of labor for postconflict stabilization and reconstruction among the national security agencies and by the building of a cadre of senior career officials with experience across the national security establishment.

The "war on terror" should be reconceived and renamed to place greater emphasis on its police, intelligence, and diplomatic components. The U.S. Army should continue to improve its counterinsurgency skills, with a particular emphasis on training, equipping, and advising others to conduct such campaigns. The United States should avoid allowing al Qaeda and its ilk to dictate its alignment in any particular dispute, should take sides when necessary based on an objective calculation of national interests, and should directly engage U.S. troops in local civil wars only in the rarest of circumstances. "Preemption" should be retired from the lexicon of declared policy, democratization should be pursued everywhere as a long-term objective in full recognition of its short-term costs and risks, and nation building should be embarked on only where the United States and its partners are ready for a long, hard, and expensive effort. Above all, Americans should accept that the entire nation has, to one degree or another, failed in Iraq. Facing up to this fact and drawing the necessary lessons is the only way to ensure that it does not similarly fail again.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • James Dobbins directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation and served as Assistant Secretary of State under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He was the Clinton administration's special envoy to Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo, and Somalia and the Bush administration's first envoy to Afghanistan.
  • More By James Dobbins