As the Bush administration winds down and Americans feel real accomplishment on Iraq after years of tough slogging, here's a dozen lessons learned for our nation.
1. War is easy, but peace is hard.
America's Leviathan force handles any conventional threat out there, so our enemies refuse to fight straight-up. Instead, they sit out the war, waiting to bleed us - asymmetrically - in the peace. If we can't master postwar environments, we'll achieve no lasting victories in this long war against radical extremism.
2. We once understood nation-building, but we've had to learn it all over again.
America built nations after World War II and did it well, but back then we'd just come off an extensive nation-building stint at home - thanks to the Great Depression. After Vietnam, our military disavowed those skills, viewing them as unacceptable "mission creep." Thanks to Iraq, our Army, in particular, redevelops those capabilities. The question is: After Iraq, will America lose them all over again?
3. We buy one force while operating another.
Since the Cold War's end, the Pentagon has spent plenty on its big-war force and systematically starved its small-wars force. With the big-war force now suffering budget cuts, there is huge bureaucratic pressure to "heal the force," meaning we go back to our old spending habits. Think it doesn't matter? Over 95 percent of our Iraq casualties have come during our lengthy postwar occupation.
4. The U.S. Army is back in frontier-integration mode.
Our Army served as a continental constabulary force for the first century and a half of America's existence, extending frontiers and protecting settlers against local insurgents. We've done counterinsurgency before.
5. Get the postwar right, save a lot of troops.
Monthly casualties dropped by half once major combat operations ended in May 2003, only to rise sharply a year later as the deadly insurgency ballooned. Casualties remained high for three-plus years until the surge reduced them dramatically. If we hadn't wasted that first year, we'd have half as many casualties today.
6. Get the postwar right, and nobody cares about prewar intelligence.
Far fewer American casualties plus reasonably satisfied Iraqis equals a nondebate over Saddam's alleged nuclear program.
7. Nation-building works from the bottom up.
All politics is local, as is security in a postwar environment. You only get good central government when local governments demand it, and that only happens when citizens have something to protect - like income.
8. The only exit strategy is jobs.
Soldiers and aid workers don't know anything about entrepreneurship and can't possibly build a national economy - only businesspeople can. The most crucial handoff is to the private sector, not the United Nations.
9. Al-Qaida always has a cause celebre and always screws it up.
Despite our constant swallowing of its propaganda, al-Qaida blew it big time in Iraq by over-reaching on fundamentalism and violence - just like everywhere else it has set up shop.
10. The redirect on Iran was a complete waste of effort.
Due to our strategic tie-down in Iraq and Afghanistan, America can't stop Iran from getting nuclear unless we go nuclear. We won't do that, meaning we should have welcomed Iran's offered help in both locations and not wasted our troops' lives in the meantime.
11. We're still waiting on a comprehensive security dialogue for the Middle East.
The Iraq Study Group called for one and Bush deferred, leaving that much-needed strategic task to the next president. We can't solve Iraq in Iraq alone.
12. The American public is not casualty-averse so much as lie-averse.
If Bush-Cheney had been honest with the American people from the start about what it would take to complete the effort in Iraq, they would've found real support. Americans will sacrifice for the collective good of others. It is a consistent quality that our politicians persistently mistrust - to everybody's detriment.