Learning the Right Lessons from Iraq

by Patricia Stottlemyer

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 blogsTumblr 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.

About the Author

Patricia Stottlemyer is a communications professional at an international think tank in Washington. Previously, she was a program officer at the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, and a policy assistant at the Project on Middle East Democracy. She graduated with highest honors and a degree in international politics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is proficient in Modern Standard Arabic.

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