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Iraq war’s failures breed rising sense of isolationism

Ten years ago today, US troops crossed the border of Iraq and began their long march to Baghdad. The legacy of that day is still unfolding in unpredictable ways, both for the United States and the region. Iraqis are still struggling with the aftermath of a war that unleashed deadly divisions in their society. Many Sunnis have left the central government in the wake of widespread allegations that Iraq’s Shiite prime minister is unwilling to share power with them. In recent months, thousands of Sunnis have taken to the streets with Arab Spring-style protests. Meanwhile, Iraq’s Kurds are weighing whether or not to pull out of the central government. It could turn out like the William Butler Yeats poem: “The centre cannot hold.”

Sectarian violence is on the rise, stirred up by the rebellion of Sunnis in neighboring Syria. Shiite militias from across the region have been busy shoring up Syrian President Bashar Assad, who hails from a Shiite Muslim sect. “Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon have basically become one gigantic battlefield, all linked together,” said Kenneth Katzman, a senior analyst at the Congressional Research Service.

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The war also left deep divisions in the United States. Despite the efforts of some of the world’s most capable soldiers, the war cost far more in time, treasure, and human lives than its supporters ever predicted. Although it began at a time of great national unity in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the massive military expenditure “contributed to polarization in Congress,” John Gannon, former deputy director at the CIA, told an audience at the Center for National Policy last week. The United States spent $800 billion in Iraq, not counting our ongoing obligations to veterans. That’s roughly the amount of this year’s federal budget deficit, which is causing such angst and gridlock on Capitol Hill. It is impossible to fight two resource-sapping wars at the same time, and not feel the pinch on Medicare and education.

The United States will eventually recover, financially and emotionally. As a nation, we have gone through far worse. But Americans have discovered how difficult it is to build a society in a faraway land and how easy it is to break one. We have acquired a renewed skepticism about the use of military force. We are facing the future with far less confidence about our ability to positively impact the world.

“It’ll be 20 years before we undertake something like this again,” General John Allen, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, predicted last week. That’s because the war didn’t make us safer. Instead, it stretched our forces thin and showcased our limitations and vulnerabilities.

It may be tempting to take refuge in isolationism — one thing that many Tea Party members and liberal Democrats agree on — but it would be a mistake. The world still needs US leadership, which doesn’t have to come in the form of hundreds of thousands of occupying troops. At a time of limited resources, the future demands that we think more creatively about how to do more with less, and how to influence the world in ways other than military might.

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