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Learning the Lessons of Iraq

NEW YORK – The Iraq war has been replaced by the declining economy as the most important issue in America’s presidential election campaign, in part because Americans have come to believe that the tide has turned in Iraq: the troop “surge” has supposedly cowed the insurgents, bringing a decline in violence. The implications are clear: a show of power wins the day. 

It is precisely this kind of macho reasoning that led America to war in Iraq in the first place. The war was meant to demonstrate the strategic power of military might. Instead, the war showed its limitations. Moreover, the war undermined America’s real source of power – its moral authority.

Recent events have reinforced the risks in the Bush administration’s approach. It was always clear that the timing of America’s departure from Iraq might not be its choice – unless it wanted to violate international law once again. Now, Iraq is demanding that American combat troops leave within twelve months, with all troops out in 2011.

To be sure, the reduction in violence is welcome, and the surge in troops may have played some role. Yet the level of violence, were it taking place anywhere else in the world, would make headlines; only in Iraq have we become so inured to violence that it is a good day if only 25 civilians get killed.