Historical memory colors policy, and affects how others interpret actions. The ways in which China, Korea, and Japan remember World War II still have impact, to the extent that changes in state educational policy provoke international crises. In the United States, conflicting interpretations of the Vietnam War helped color security policy for a generation. Memories of war easily become analogies, and analogies help structure how we think through future policy decisions.
The tenth anniversary of the launch of the Iraq War has helped spark a debate over how the war will be interpreted by history. Was the invasion of Iraq the catastrophic outcome of intelligence errors made in context of an overly-enthusiastic push for war? Was it the result of the deft play of a group of ideologically committed policymakers and foreign policy thinkers (known colloquially as “neocons”)? Was it part and parcel of a long term U.S. policy of aggressive military response to minimal provocation? Or was the conflict, in fact, motivated by legitimate concerns of security and justice? Finally, irrespective of the reasons for going to war, did the United States “win?”
Disagreement over these questions will undoubtedly persist, even as ongoing events in Iraq and the Middle East provide more grist for debate. Majorities in the United States have long believed that the war was a mistake, but hawks continue to argue the contrary case. Deep skepticism about the wisdom of Iraq has surely characterized much of the U.S. policy response to Libya, Mali, and Syria; it seems that America will participate either as a background facilitator, or not at all. To some degree, the existence of a bitter debate is enough to scare policymakers away from further foreign entanglements.
If the debate between Americans affects U.S. policy, other states need to pay attention. The lessons that outsiders can take from the Iraq War are every bit as varied as those of insiders. Does the United States see things through to the bitter end, or abandon its allies at the first opportunity? Does the United States mean business, or does it randomly invade small countries? Does the United States have a tactically flexible military, or one so hidebound that it couldn’t deal with the shifting challenges of Afghanistan and Iraq? Does the United States have strategic focus, or does it bounce between priorities after every election?
The answers to these questions are less obvious than we’d like to think. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that careful historical analysis will have much impact on how the world answers these questions. Rather, states will interpret U.S. behavior through pre-existing frames; if you want to believe that America is a sociopathic bully than bails at the first sign of danger, there is ample evidence to confirm this belief. History rarely offers clear lessons or messages, and always grants a great deal of space for interpretation and obfuscation. Even this ambiguity carries an important lessons for policy, however; Americans who expected the invasion of Iraq to demonstrate power, seriousness, and resolve to China or North Korea should find themselves direly disappointed at the course of events.