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From War of Choice to War Without End

WASHINGTON, DC – When the Bourbon monarchy was restored in 1815, the French diplomat Talleyrand is reported to have said of the Bourbons: “They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” Ten years after the start of the Iraq War, the question is whether anyone – Americans, Iraqis, Iranians, other Arab states – has learned anything from this terrible experience.

By the standards of modern warfare, America’s losses were much lower than they were in other recent conflicts – more than 12 times as many American soldiers were killed in Vietnam. Yet the Iraq war has scarred America in many ways. It was, as many have pointed out, a war of “choice,” a formulation rarely, if ever, used to describe America’s previous wars.

In a certain way, Iraq was the first think-tank war. To be sure, in the early 1960’s, members of President John F. Kennedy’s administration intellectualized war and debated the merits of strategies, including counterinsurgency. But there can be no comparison to the cerebral mud wrestling that played out in Washington over Iraq.

This partly reflected the existential threat that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, represented in so many people’s minds. The United States, it was argued, needed to begin to think about war differently. Former US diplomat George F. Kennan famously said that “democracy fights in anger.” But the new strategic doctrine of “preemption,” which many argued would define war-making in the twenty-first century, suggests that democracies also fight in dread.