Learning from our Mistakes

A Commentary by Lee H. Hamilton, President and Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center

Feb 08, 2007

It is not too early to draw lessons from the war in Iraq. The most important questions involve when, where, and how the United States intervenes in foreign lands. Yet we must also consider the capacity of our government to act abroad, because the United States is good at fighting wars, but not as good at keeping the peace and helping nations rebuild.

Books and articles have detailed the lack of competence demonstrated by the United States in Iraq, and Congress is shedding further light through oversight hearings. History will sort out the decisions made by U.S. officials and military commanders. But we can immediately identify flaws in the structure and capabilities of the U.S. government that have been on display since Saddam Hussein's statue fell in Baghdad in April 2003.

A starting point is language and cultural understanding. The Iraq Study Group determined that as of December 2006, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad with nearly 1000 personnel had just 33 Arabic speakers, 6 of whom were fluent. This problem also plagues our military and intelligence agencies. In a place like Iraq – where decisions must be made quickly, where the enemy is not clear, where it is easy to offend, and where our ultimate success depends upon our ability to win the confidence of the Iraqis – our lack of language and cultural proficiency puts the lives of our people, and the fate of our mission, at risk.

The U.S. government needs people who speak difficult languages like Arabic, and who understand Islamic culture. This must be a top priority for the Secretaries of State and Defense, and the Director of National Intelligence. In the short term, we need to provide a higher level of training for those deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the long term, we need to do far better at understanding – and communicating with – the people whose hearts and minds we are trying to win. U.S. universities should play a key role, just as we produced generations of Russian speakers and experts during the Cold War.

Beyond specific skills, we must develop a strategy that integrates military and civilian capabilities. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has taken the lead in post-conflict "nation building" exercises in Haiti, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is highly likely that similar interventions will arise in the future, prompted by military conflict or humanitarian catastrophe. When this happens, civilian agencies must be able to take responsibilities from the military, and move quickly to execute plans for reconstruction and political development.

In broken societies, there is a huge range of demands: standing up the police and judicial system, restoring the economy, rebuilding infrastructure, or supporting agriculture. Too often, we place much of the burden on the military. Our civilian agencies have fewer resources and incentives for their personnel to take on these tasks. Yet why should soldiers be training local police, building sewer systems, or refurbishing electrical power plants?

On the Iraq Study Group, we recommended robust training across the government to foster a cadre of civilians who can be deployed to post-conflict situations. U.S. agencies must prepare to act jointly, so that Defense, State, Treasury, Justice, the intelligence community, and others can operate as seamlessly abroad as our military services do under a Joint Command. In particular, the State Department needs to train personnel – a "Foreign Service Reserve Corps – to operate better outside of a traditional embassy setting in complex situations like Iraq. This civilian capability would help maintain order and build institutions needed to stabilize a country.

Finally, the United States can lessen its burden by acting with broad international support. Many of our friends and allies have considerable experience in different parts of the world, and can support efforts like police training or economic reconstruction. International organizations like the United Nations often possess a reservoir of expertise on matters like Constitution-drafting, conflict resolution, and political reconciliation. Non-governmental organizations play an increasingly important role in performing targeted functions like food distribution or medical care. The U.S. government must be comfortable working alongside all of these different players.

Just as we should not use our military strength as a rationale for military action, we should not use enhanced civilian capabilities as a rationale for more nation building. However, our experience in Iraq underscores the need to be better prepared to transition from military to civilian missions. Because the great challenges of the 21st century will not be conventional military conflicts – they will often be sustained efforts to bring stability to unstable corners of our world.

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