Learning the Right Lessons from Iraq

by Patricia Stottlemyer on November 25, 2013

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In a recent Fletcher Forum piece, Manuel Muniz outlines the effects of Iraq and Libya on Western policy toward the Syrian crisis. Muniz observes that national and international collective memory of interventions in Iraq and Libya has limited the range of options the United States and the UK can pursue in Syria today. He argues that this is partly due to the ease with which the public can access information about the controversial Iraq and Libya interventions. On the contrary, I argue that acute awareness of past mistakes could result in a more participatory and nuanced dialogue on international options in Syria.

The same online sources that highlight the flaws of the Iraq invasion also suggest that Syria should not be conflated with Iraq. In Iraq, the United States undertook preemptive military action based on false pretexts and limited transparency. Meanwhile, in Syria, social media has documented atrocities inside the war zone, with the White House citing “thousands of social media reports from at least twelve different locations in the Damascus area” in its assessment of the chemical weapons attacks on August 21. Moreover, thanks to daily news reports and publications by NGOs and international organizations, few can question the extent of humanitarian losses in Syria, which now number over 100,000 dead, 6.5 million internally displaced, and over 2 million refugees. The ability to verify the use of chemical weapons by President Bashar Al-Assad’s government—and the extent of the humanitarian toll—was critical to spurring the debate over options in Syria.

In the wake of Iraq, U.S. policymakers have become more cautious about authorizing the use of force in certain situations without all the facts. Not only is information more widely available but also the questions surrounding the legality of the Iraq invasion have caused policymakers and the public to actively seek out the truth so they can avoid making the same mistakes. When the option of a Syria strike was presented before Congress, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) asked, “What are our objectives in limited and targeted airstrikes? What does degradation [of the Syrian government forces] look like? And what will we do if the initial action does not yield the intended result?” Members of British Parliament were equally skeptical and loath to act before definitively determining responsibility for the chemical attacks.

It is true, as Muniz points out, that the memory of the United States’ intervention in Iraq has prevented policymakers and the public from seriously considering the full range of options for responding to the Syrian conflict. For example, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who voted for military action in Iraq, expressed his hesitation for militarily striking Syria in light of Iraq:

“I trusted their assessment, our president, and the secretary of state as he made the case before the UN . . . I supported the president’s request and voted yes. The search for weapons of mass destruction came up empty, and cost our nation lives and money. We are being asked again by the chief executive to authorize the use of force against Syria. . . .  I am not convinced that a limited strike against Syria at this time is warranted.”

Americans should rightfully be wary of intervening in other countries, but should not automatically assume that any intervention is ill-advised or marked by false pretenses, particularly those in response to humanitarian crises or crimes against humanity. And indeed, there was evidence of a robust and participatory debate about what was happening in Syria and how the world should respond in blogs, Tumblr feeds, and conferences originating throughout the world. Without the recent memory of Iraq, people would not have been so incited to seek the truth and debate the options.

With Bashar Al-Assad’s administration agreeing to destroy its chemical weapons stockpiles, the debate over Syria has effectively stalled. However, going forward, it will not only be important to continue seeking the truth using the vast array of sources at our disposal, but also to use the information to fuel a more constructive and informed debate surrounding foreign policy issues. The media in particular has a responsibility—and also an increased capacity—to give voice to those on the ground through new technologies and to incorporate lessons learned from past foreign policy blunders. Finally, it is incumbent on the public to not only demand transparency and truth and stay informed, but also to use the information it gleans to press for informed actions and constructive debate.

John Kerry recently argued that fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility to intervene when a dictator acts with abandon against his own people.  We cannot let our fatigue allow us to draw false comparisons, nor keep us from learning from the past.

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1 Nabil El Aid El Othmani December 20, 2013

I think it is time to put some serious thought in endowing the United Nations security council with a permanent body of international troops that is both sizable, well armed, and able to deploy rapidly to trouble spots for rapid interventions.

This rapid intervention corps is the teeth’s that the U.N Secretary lacks in the accomplishment of his duties, he remains in such circumstances tributary to contributions by member states who might, might not, contribute troops depending of their own political agendas.

It is true that some will put a blunt resistance to the creation of this supranational force, what will be its mandate ? Where and when can it intervene ? The way around this is to put it at the disposition of the security council in a permanent manner.

This international force would be solely under the command of the U.N and that way Sec Gen Ban Ki Moon and other future general secretaries of the U.N wouldn’t find their hands tied when it is necessary to intervene rapidly and efficiently to quell developing situations whenever they arise.

This also would mean a shift of power from the security council to the secretary general who would dispose of an actual professional army corp at his command with the mandate to use it, a mandate that in the actual scheme of things is at odds with the functionning of the security council and the veto powers exerced by its members.

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