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Have We Learned The Wrong Lessons From The Iraq War?


As the fighting grinds on in Syria, many are still wondering if the U.S. should intervene beyond its campaign against ISIS. Fifty-one diplomats and State Department officials recently said yes. In a so-called dissent memo, they called for limited military strikes against the Syrian regime. But the Obama administration has stuck with no, repeatedly pointing to what it calls failed interventions in Iraq and Libya. Nussaibah Younis is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and she says the administration has learned the wrong lessons from the Iraq War.

NUSSAIBAH YOUNIS: I think the lesson we ended up learning was that military intervention is almost always destined to fail and that there are very real limits on the ability of the United States to project its military power to achieve its national security goals.

MCEVERS: Instead, she says, the lesson should have been that military interventions can work if they're based on good intelligence and have clear goals and enough resources behind them. Like in Syria, she says, where she says the U.S. should do more to support moderate rebels and set up safe zones to protect them against Syria and Russia. That would pressure President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers to stop bombing Syrian civilians.

YOUNIS: We've effectively taken all the military engagement except against ISIS totally off the table. There's not even really a credible threat of military intervention, and that is not helping us to achieve our national security goals in Syria.

MCEVERS: That's Assad, but what about Russia? The U.S. ratchets up its military involvement. Russia responds and then we get into a situation where we don't know where it ends.

YOUNIS: Yeah. I think it's partly about just - I don't think there is a military solution to this war, and I'm not suggesting that the United States engage militarily, you know, to secure an end to the conflict. It's just about showing that Assad and the Russian forces don't have a carte blanche to do anything that they want in the country, including engaging in mass bombings. So it's about changing the realities on the ground just to the point where we can incentivize the regime to come to the table.

MCEVERS: It sounds like a good plan, but, as we all know, the best laid plans...


MCEVERS: ...You know, we want them to come to the table, but then we end up in an all-out war that lasts years and years and costs blood and treasure.

YOUNIS: Yeah, I mean, look, there's no American or Russian interest in having all-out war, certainly not between the United States and Russia. Ultimately, we are engaged. We are conducting air strikes. We are conducting training and equipping missions. The problem is we're doing it on such a tiny scale that we have no chance of succeeding in achieving our goals.

So the Iraq War should have taught us that when we have decided that we have this national security goal in the country, we need to come to a clear-headed decision on the kinds of resources that would need to be committed to that effort in order to achieve our goal. Otherwise, we might as well not bother because we might end up making a worse situation rather than a better one.

MCEVERS: How do you imagine policy on intervention in Syria changing in the next administration? I guess we should talk about either scenario - Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

YOUNIS: Yeah. I think with Donald Trump it's - it remains very unpredictable. Although, Donald Trump is very isolationist in general. When it comes to ISIS, he is pretty hardline, and that reflects the wider sentiment in the Republican Party.

I think for Hillary Clinton, she really bears the baggage from the Iraq War, which, I think, is another tragedy of the Iraq War. But I think when she separates her own national security assessments from her desire to remain popular with the Democratic base, I think she comes out on the side of more robust intervention than President Obama has done.

MCEVERS: Nussaibah Younis, thank you very much.

YOUNIS: Of course, thank you.

MCEVERS: Nussaibah Younis is a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council where she also directs the Task Force on the Future of Iraq Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.