Asked at a recent press conference whether he still considered Iraq to be “a dumb war”, President Barack Obama carefully replied: “I think history will judge the original decision to go into Iraq.” Now that the last US combat soldier has departed Iraq, thereby bringing to an end almost nine years of American fighting, it is not too soon to take the president up on his challenge and to start writing history.
The fact that the 2003 Iraq war was a classic war of choice does not automatically make it a mistake; it does, however, raise the bar. Unlike wars of necessity, which by definition must be fought no matter what the costs given the stakes and the absence of alternatives, wars of choice are only justified when the benefits clearly outweigh the costs.
Like all wars, the Iraq war holds any number of lessons, but I would highlight one above all others. It is that local realities matter far more than global or geopolitical abstractions. This was true in Vietnam; it is no less true now in Afghanistan. What is called for is awareness of what we do not know and humility in what we try to bring about.