Mega Lessons from Iraq War, Year 5

As we open year five of the Iraq war it is fitting we attempt to learn as much as we can. But we don’t dare miss the “gorilla in the room” — the big one. We’ve seen lots of editorializing lately covering many of the painful lessons. All the ‘what if’s’ along the way.

But there is another mega lesson. We are in a 50-year trend of a shriveling State Department and a burgeoning Defense Department. The State Department actually reduced in numbers of personnel during the 1990s. The Defense growth trend was born out of the Cold War threat of the Soviet Union and was accelerated under Robert McNamara. But it has now gotten to the point where most people in most nations around the world would say the Defense Department is definitely much bigger than the USA.

It has taken the bumbling incompetence of successive Bush/Cheney administrations’ prosecution of the Iraq war to make this clear. One of our generals observed recently that we can’t do it all with only the military. Du-uh! We knew that sixty years ago but have forgotten it. When the face of America experienced by most of the nations around the world is someone whose paycheck comes out of the Defense budget we do not present ourselves fully. Today, for every one State Department person working abroad there are more than ten Defense Department personnel. Even the Commerce Department has a pseudo diplomatic corps that rivals that of the State Department.

The State Department and Defense Department do not have the same charter. Defense is chartered to defend us from security threats using the tools of war. The State department is chartered to establish and maintain a robust, fully rounded relationship with the other nations of the world. A fully rounded relationship includes, at a minimum; economic, cultural, political and diplomatic interactions. That full relationship is best expressed in the concept of the Foreign Service. A service embodying ALL aspects of our relationship with other nations.

If our State Department had the resources of a robust Foreign Service in 2002 we might have foreseen the disaster we created when we destabilized Iraq. We definitely would have had people who knew the basics like how to speak the languages(!) and something of the cultural heritage hiding under Sadaam’s heel. For instance we would have known that Jeffersonian democracy might not be the right next step after Sadaam’s fall. After all, the only people who held tight to their tribal heritage during the emergence of the American democracy were either killed or rounded up and put on reservations.

We are in a period of American history in which the penalty for speaking truth to power has been raised to very high levels. Valerie Plame paid with her career plus the compromising of all the contacts she made during her service. The Dixie Chicks are paying in the millions of dollars. But the Iraq Study Group led the way to lowering those penalties. They were the first to openly criticize without being branded terrorists or sympathizers. The 2006 election results added to the credibility of dissent. But America needs specific action, not just dissent.

Americans need to insist that the debate for the 2008 presidential election include a serious reform of our government and how we present ourselves to the world, to include the revitalization of the Foreign Service. This will not be easy. The Defense Department behemoth is strong and capable. The Defense Department budget is part of the economy in almost all the congressional districts. The defense industry lobbyists are giants on the Washington scene. The other departments, which have grown their own diplomatic corps, will resist too. But reform we must. It will take political will not often seen in this country. It will mean that the next Secretary of State has to be ready for a bureaucratic war to restore State as the face of America. The opposition will be fierce. The February 2007 paper, The Politics of National Security Budgets by Gordon Adams of the Stanley Institute, examines much of this aspect in depth.

Over the last several years America’s image in the world has been changed from one of a sometimes clumsy but benevolent giant to that of a rogue bully. In 2002 only the radical few would have questioned the power or doubted the fundamental decency of the United States of America. Today it is likely that a majority question the efficacy of the power and even the existence of the decency.

We have permitted ourselves to be defined by fears instead of drawing our essence from hopes and dreams. We need to reconstitute both ourselves and our presence in the world, thereby recovering the huge losses of the last several years. Facing the threat of spreading terrorism we must not be engaged in weakening ourselves.

HILL KEMP is a former State Representative from Texas and witnessed George Bush, Karl Rove and Paula Hughes set up shop as Texas Governor in 1995. His thriller, Capitol Offense, enshrines the dysfunction — principles du jour — he saw with a literary caricature of the Bush/Rove leadership style. His other publications include short story anthologies, tips for fiction writers and, out soon, a children’s chapter book. His sequel to Capitol Offense is due out in 2007 and is titled A Lone Star Special. More at